The Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a 19-square-mile patch of native grass and wetlands occupying a former glacial lake bed just north of Great Falls on the western edge of the Great Plains. Benton Lake is actually a shallow 5,000-acre wetland.
The Refuge's 12,383 acres are mostly devoted to migratory bird habitat and waterfowl production. Eight distinct wetland areas have been defined by a series of dikes that manage water flow within the refuge, primarily to maximize duck habitat.
During spring and fall migrations, some 250,000 ducks, Canada geese, snow geese, tundra swans and shorebirds layover at Benton Lake, and 199 bird species have been recorded here over the last half century, including trumpeter swans and snowy owls.
Recreational opportunities include the 9-mile Prairie Marsh Wildlife Drive Auto Tour, bird-watching, wildlife photography (a public blind is first-come, first-served; private blinds are allowed as well), and waterfowl and upland game bird hunting during the fall (non-toxic shot only). The refuge is open to cross-country skiing from Dec. 15 through Feb. 28. Non-motorized boats are allowed on the water only during hunting season. No camping is allowed anytime. Be aware that dirt refuge roads may be closed at any season for snow, mud, or protection of breeding birds. Dogs, unless hunting in-season, must be leashed.
Management of the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge Complex includes the non-contiguous 7,885-acre Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, 40 miles west of Kalispell, and the 1,568-acre Swan River National Wildlife Refuge in the Swan River floodplain upstream of Swan Lake, both of which are managed primarily for bird habitat..