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Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Site Facts

Country, State, Province/Region:

United States of America, Montana

Relative Location:

Cascade and Choteau Counties


111° 19' W, 47° 40' N



Basis for Designation:

Supports more than 20,000 shorebirds annually.


22,146 acres (8,962 hectares)


February 1994

Site Owner/Steward:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Site Partners:

Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon Society
Great Falls Chamber of Commerce


Refuge Manager
Benton Lake National Wildife Refuge
Great Falls, Montana
Tel: 406-727-7400

About Us

Benton Lake covers approximately 12,000 total acres, including 5,000 wetland acres and 7,000 upland acres. A wide variety of migratory shorebirds visit the refuge during spring (northern flights) and fall migrations (southern flights). Nesting shorebirds in order of peak annual numbers include American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Marbled Godwit, Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Killdeer, Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, and Spotted Sandpiper.

Non-nesting shorebirds include a variety of Arctic-nesting species whose numbers peak from July-October. Long-billed Dowitchers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Baird’s, Stilt and Pectoral Sandpipers, and Black-bellied Plovers are the most common.

The site is also used by migrant Bald Eagles in the spring and fall and by Peregrine Falcons monthly from April through September. The area serves as an important breeding ground for 12 species of ducks, White-faced Ibis, Eared Grebes, Franklin’s Gulls, and 7 wetland-dependant birds recognized as Species of Special Concern by the Montana Natural Heritage Program.         

Species include:

American Avocet
American Golden-Plover
Baird’s Sandpiper
Black-bellied Plover
Black-necked Stilt
Long-billed Dowitcher
Marbled Godwit
Pectoral Sandpiper
Red-necked Phalarope
Semipalmated Sandpiper

Ecology & Conservation

Land use:
The area is managed as a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 identifies wildlife as the primary goal of all lands administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the National Wildlife Refuge System. All activities on the refuge must be compatible with the primary purpose of the refuge. Benton Lake was established in 1929 “as a refuge and breeding ground for birds.”

Current Threats:
Heavy metal contamination of Benton Lake Watershed and the water pumped to the refuge are threats. Selenium accumulations in marsh sediments and biota originate on private land farmed for dry land crops, primarily wheat and barley, where summer fallow farming is practiced. Research on Selenium cycling and water management that incorporates a natural “drought effect” for the refuge marshes will minimize the threat to wetland birds.

Research and Management Activities:
Shorebird management, research, and an understanding of their basic biology have been limited in the past due to funding and staff. Efforts since 1991 have been bolstered by the WHSRN designation, the use of volunteer field assistants, and the funding provided through the USFWS Ecosystem Approach to Management for Biological Monitoring. Monitoring efforts continued in 1997 on migrant shorebirds and a Black-Necked Stilt nesting survey that documented 97 nests, the largest known breeding population in Montana. Future efforts will continue to focus on documenting species’ seasons of use, habitats and population numbers for eventual development of habitat objectives that support shorebirds, and a diversity of other wetland bird species.



Site Contact

Refuge Manager
Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge
922 Bootlegger Trail
Great Falls, Montana 5904-6133
Tel: 406-727-7400
Fax: 406-727-7432    

Site Partners

Upper Missouri Breaks Audubon Society
MT #18 6th Street North
Great Falls, Montana 59401

Great Falls Chamber of Commerce
MT 815 2nd St. So.
Great Falls, Montana 59405

Additional Resources


Skagen, S.K. and F.L. Knopf. 1993. Toward Conservation of Midcontinental Shorebird Migrations. Conservation Biology, Vol. 7(3): 533-541.