Fort Missoula Ponds: An Opportunity

by Jim Brown

The Missoula community faces a new challenge and an exciting opportunity at Fort Missoula. An 87 acre parcel of land, formerly a Knife River gravel extraction operation, is now owned by the City of Missoula. Left behind from the gravel operation are two deep water ponds, one about 10 acres and one 27 acres. Missoula now must consider what is the best use of these ponds and surrounding area. 

The ponds lie next to the Bitterroot River and are bordered by University of Montana property at Fort Missoula containing undeveloped grassland. Nearby are Slevin’s Island, the Bird Ecology Lab, and native plant garden. The private land on the West is mostly protected by a conservation easement and includes McCauley Butte and the flood plain below. This largely undeveloped landscape has outstanding riparian values providing the Missoula Valley with a treasured resource that is vital to many plants and animals. Birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and aquatic invertebrates are found here. The ponds and adjoining lands are part of the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area, recognized as having continental significance and is a Cornerstone Area in the City Open Space Plan.

The significant wildlife values of the ponds became apparent when disturbance caused by the gravel operation ceased. Since then many different bird species have appeared on the ponds. In just the past five years 231 bird species have been reported for the eBird hotspot covering these Ponds including a number of species of conservation concern. The ponds are particularly sought by migrating waterfowl and other water birds. Some of the unusual observations include Common and Pacific Loons, Horned and Red-necked Grebes, American White Pelican, Black-crowned Night Heron, White-faced Ibis, Surf and White-winged Scoters, American Avocet, Sabine’s Gull, Bewick’s Wren, Magnolia Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager. During early spring large flocks of Snow Geese and ducks have been stopping off at the ponds to rest as they continue their journey. Wintering birds from the arctic tundra that regularly visit here include Tree Sparrow, Rough-legged Hawk and Northern Shrike.

These ponds are the only large water body in the greater Missoula Valley, a significant resource for migrating birds that need to stop, rest and refuel to meet their high energy demands. These ponds provide an extraordinary opportunity for citizens to observe and enjoy the many varied forms of life that depend on wetlands. Managing the area for its natural values would provide a form of nature based recreation that allows people of all ages to observe wildlife in a natural setting and provide a laboratory for environmental education. The only other comparable migration stopover habitats in west central Montana are Nine Pipes Reservoir and the wetlands at Lee Metcalf. The importance of these wetlands for wildlife is reflected by the fact that these are both National Wildlife Refuges. The Fort Missoula Ponds are on par with their significance for migratory waterfowl.

The City of Missoula must decide on how best to manage the ponds considering their natural values and recreational opportunities. A public involvement process is planned to determine how best to serve the interests of Missoula’s citizens. Five Valleys Audubon, the Montana Natural History Center and Clark Fork Coalition are actively advocating that the Fort Missoula Ponds be formerly established as a highly valued and sought after natural area unique to the greater Missoula Valley. Your voice in support of a natural area that protects and enhances the critical wildlife resource for all citizens to enjoy will be needed as the public involvement process unfolds.

Where are the Fort Missoula Ponds?

Select image to enlarge.

From 2016 to the present day observers have documented 231 species of birds through eBird at the Fort Missoula Ponds!

See the data here.

View the results of Five Valleys Audubon surveys of the Fort Missoula Ponds in 2022 and 2023 here.

The Fort Missoula Ponds: a hotspot for biodiversity

A podcast from Shane Sater, field biologist, BA in Environmental Science (Carroll College, 2022) and author of the blog “What’s going on out there? Bugs, birds, plants, and more“.

The Missoulian Covers FVAS Survey Efforts at the Fort Missoula Ponds

On June 30, 2022 Joshua Murdock and Tom Bauer from the Missoulian accompanied FVAS members on a bird survey at the ponds, read the article here.

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