Both black bears and grizzlies live in and around western Montana’s forests. Elks live high in the summer, low in the winter. They’re sometimes called wapiti, and they grow their antlers fresh every summer and shed them in the winter. Moose are common but private. Mule deer negotiate rough forest terrain; white-tailed deer run across more open areas. Transition areas between two types of habitat (such as the edges of a meadow or clear-cut) are usually good places to look for all sorts of wildlife. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and grizzly bears are all more likely to be seen high on the slopes of the Rockies.
Mountain lions have been showing up in some unlikely places, like the streets of Columbia Falls, the parks of Missoula, and the campgrounds of Glacier National Park. Big people can usually frighten them off with shouting and menacing gestures, but children and small adults have been attacked. Youngsters should hike within sight of adults.
Because of its predatory instincts, the gray wolf has been trapped, hunted, and poisoned to near extinction. Since receiving protection as an endangered species, wolf populations have made a comeback, mostly near Glacier National Park and in the far reaches of northwestern Montana. Even before wolves were introduced to Yellowstone National Park, some seemed to have slipped in unescorted. Montana’s wolf population grew to over 420 before wolves were delisted as endangered species in 2008 by the Bush administration. Responsibility for wolf population management has passed to individual states, with Montana officials talking about instituting a hunting season for wolves.
The wolf’s smaller relative, the coyote, has managed not only to survive the abuses given to predator species but to actually thrive in human-inhabited areas.
Birds such as dippers, Clark’s nutcrackers, spruce grouse, owls, woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, wrens, sparrows, flycatchers, mountain bluebirds, western tanagers, warblers, rufous hummingbirds, waterfowl, bald eagles, ospreys, and hawks all find niches in the varied habitats provided by western Montana’s forests.
Westslope cutthroat trout, the state fish, is native to Montana’s streams and lakes. First described by Meriwether Lewis, its Latin name, Salmo clarki, remembers William Clark. The name cutthroat is just as revealing: These black-specked fish sport two red slashes under their jaws. Because of their tendency to hybridize with rainbow trout, cutthroat are becoming rarer.
Bull trout live mostly in northwestern Montana, especially in their native Clark Fork and Flathead drainages, although stream degradation from overlogging has severely damaged their habitat and reduced their numbers. They’re olive green with orange or yellow spots on their sides and can run up to 30 pounds.
Brown trout were imported from Europe in the 1880s, and their numbers have now surpassed many native species. Browns have a reputation for being wily and tough to hook. Another introduced species, the brook trout, comes from the eastern United States. The backs of these fish have light-colored “worm tracks” on their otherwise dark olive backs.
Whitefish are silver-sided with olive-green backs and small mouths. They are usually five pounds or less and live in the western part of the state.
Arctic grayling are trout cousins; they’re not common, but they can be caught in southwestern and south-central Montana. These small copper-colored or bluish fish are usually less than a foot long, with large dorsal fins.
Until recently, kokanee salmon, landlocked salmon with small dark spots on a blue-tinted body, thrived in Flathead Lake, where they’d been planted in the 1920s. Although changes in the lake’s ecology have not favored the Flathead kokanee, they are still abundant in other parts of northwestern Montana.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition