About the Swan Valley

The Swan Valley

The Sonoran Institute and the National Geographic Society call the Crown of the Continent “one of the most beautiful and wild intact natural ecosystems left on the planet.”[1]  Within the Crown, in Montana, is the Swan Valley. Located just 70 miles south of Glacier National Park, it is bordered on the east and the west by wilderness areas. In 2008, American Wildlands ranked the Swan Valley the highest in terms of habitat quality, value and importance as a linkage Zone in the Crown of the Continent.[2] The Swan Valley Growth Policy Committee describes the valley as one of the most wild and natural human inhabited ecosystems in the lower 48 states and one of the most aesthetically beautiful glaciated mountain regions of Northwest Montana.[3]

Looking across the Swan Valley at the Mission Mountain Range from the foothills of the Swan Range showing the vivid fall colors of Western Larch and the high Mission Mountains Wilderness.

The intricate and complex landscape of the Swan offers views of high mountain peaks, glaciated hanging valleys, waterfalls, inspiring pinnacles, saw-toothed cliffs and ever-changing patterns of light. The Swan Range four miles to the east is often called the Alps of Montana and forms the boundary of 4.5 million acres of federal wilderness and protected lands found in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier Park. The Mission Mountain Range four miles to the west is equally spectacular and forms the Mission Mountain Wilderness Complex, which in addition to federal lands includes the only designated tribal wilderness lands in the United States.

Fall comes early to the high country in the the Swan Range.

The Swan Valley benefits from all the major species found in the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex to the East and the Mission Mountain Wilderness to the West. The Swan Valley is one of the few mountain valleys in the West where free ranging populations of every major predator and big game species live and move through a rural valley community on a regular basis. There are more Grizzly Bears in the Swan Valley than students in the elementary school.The successful co-existence of humans in balance with rare and endangered species is one of the most unique aspects of the Swan Valley and one of the most vulnerable and fragile.

The US Census designates Condon in the Upper Swan Valley as a “Frontier Community,” because there is less than 1 person per square mile. This rural and wild landscape supports a mix of descendants of homesteading families and newer arrivals that came here to live in this wild place. They form a dispersed community of friendly and independent souls dedicated to protecting the natural integrity of the valley, its rural culture, its wildlife and grandeur. The vast majority of the land in the valley is public, managed by the USFS.

Geologically, the valley bottoms are highly diverse, having been created by numerous advancing and retreating glaciers. The land type classification is mostly glacial troughs with small pockets of wet depression and glacial outwash, known as kame and kettle.

Holland Lake is the beating heart of the Swan Valley, gateway to the Bob Marshall and the Swan Mountain Face. The Lake is small at 413 acres, less than a half mile wide and 1.75 miles long. It is picturesque with a large waterfall visible in the Swan Face above the eastern shore of the lake.

The headwaters of the Swan River arise from creeks flowing out of Lindbergh, and Holland Lakes. Twelve drainages shaped by glaciers flow out of the Swan and Mission Mountain ranges and support this large hydrologic system.

The Swan River drainage contains over 4,000 glacially derived wetlands. The Montana Natural Heritage Program identifies 14 ecologically significant wetlands found in the Swan River Valley. [4]  This complex of wetlands intermingled with upland terrain is unusual in the continental United States, with the only other valley identified with similar features found in Alaska.[5] The extent and diversity of this system is unique in Montana for a forested landscape. It plays a vital role in the past, present and future of all life in the whole Upper Swan Valley. It may be the single most outstanding geographic and biologic feature of the Upper Swan Valley.

Swan River Is a high priority Class II Fishery, supporting Bull Trout

Each wetland type has its own characteristic vegetation, wildlife, hydrology and type of human activity. Many dry up by middle or late summer and may contain the rare plant, water howellia (Howellia aquatilis). There are more wetland-related rare plant populations here than anywhere else in Montana.[6] Whereas Montana has less than two percent (2%) of its land area in wetlands, this complex comprises over 16 percent (16%) of the lower elevation land area in the Swan Valley. While Montana has lost 27 percent (27%) of its historic wetlands, the Upper Swan Valley wetlands are mostly intact.

There are 16 species of amphibians and reptiles found in the Swan Valley. This includes the northern alligator lizard, the western toad, and the northern leopard frog, all species of concern or at risk in Montana. [7] Important habitat for amphibians and other non-fish biota can occur throughout the widely dispersed wetlands found in the Swan, including around Holland Lake, its inlet and outlet and the wetlands found adjacent to its shores.

Where aquatic habitat remains largely intact, native fish display a remarkable resistance to the effects of introduced species. Certain reaches of the main stem of the Swan River retain floodplain forests, a high degree of channel complexity, and evidence of strong interaction between surface waters and the local alluvial aquifer with underground water flowing through mud and sand deposits. This relationship gets more complicated around the Holland and Lindbergh Lakes and raises the potential lake water contamination from effluent flow through the aquifer.

Wetlands are common in the Swan Valley

The Swan River is rated a high priority fishery resource (Class II fishery).  Bull trout, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species act and West Slope Cutthroat Trout, a species of special concern in Montana are present in the Swan River and Holland Lake.  This hydrologic system is considered some of the best, or substantial, bull trout habitat in the state, and offers pure viable populations of West Slope Cutthroat.[8] The Swan Watershed is designated as a core recovery area for Bull trout and holds an estimated population of 2,500 adult bull trout.

Coordinated federal and state recovery programs are underway to preserve spawning grounds and habitat in area waters for the bull trout.  And agencies are currently studying and assessing West Throat Cutthroat populations.[9]  Water quality of the lakes, streams and rivers is high and is an important resource for humans, wildlife, and fisheries.  Bald eagles use the Swan River corridor as a wintering area. Also found in the region is Howell’s gumweed, a plant species of special concern in Montana.

There are approximately 38 different forest habitat types that occur in the Swan Valley from Summit to Goat Creek.[10] And the Swan Valley is well known for its diverse and plentiful wildlife. A total of 69 species of mammals are known to occur in the Swan Valley and have been documented by the Montana Natural Heritage Program or others. A wide range of animal species lives in the bottom lands and surrounding mountainous terrain, especially around valley bottom lakes like Holland and Lindbergh. Deer and elk herds and moose are sustained by critical winter range habitats on the lower elevations of the valley. Mountain goats find favorable habitats in mountainous terrain. Predators consist of mountain lion, bobcat, lynx, coyote, wolf, fox, mink, otter, fisher, pine marten, weasel, wolverine and badger.  Black bear and grizzly bear roam throughout most of the Swan Valley region. The Swan Valley is critical habitat for the nationally threatened grizzly bear. Small mammals in the area include beaver, muskrat, rabbits, Columbian ground squirrels, squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, mice, skunk, porcupine, and raccoon, among others. 

Over 160 species of birds are found in the valley, with 110 species documented as breeding and raising young.  Depending on the source, 22 to 36 of the 160 avian species found in the valley are species of concern. This includes the bald eagle, black backed woodpecker, common loon, and peregrine falcon. Avian predators include bald and golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, osprey, and several species of owl. The Swan Valley is one of the only watersheds in the West that supports breeding common loons, with breeding pairs found in Swan, Van, Loon, Holland, and Lindbergh lakes.[11]

Federally listed animals include the threatened bull trout, grizzly bear, and lynx. The wolf was delisted from endangered status in 2017 and the peregrine falcon in 1999.  The bald eagle was delisted from threatened status in 2007. Wolverines are listed as a candidate species under the endangered species act.

The Swan Valley is in the Northwest Montana Wolf Recovery Area as identified by the USFWS. In 2009 the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks confirmed the presence of three resident wolf packs in the Swan Valley. They estimated that 15-25 wolves live in the Swan. The wolf population is now managed as a fur bearer by Fish Wildlife and Parks with closely regulated harvest seasons.

The Swan Valley is part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). This includes the Bob Marshall Complex, the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier Park.  In 2004 the USFW stated that there were 765 grizzlies in this region.  In 2021, the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks estimate the population at 1,138 [12]. This is the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. The USGS confirmed the presence of 45 bears in the Swan Valley during 2003 – 2004.  They estimate that at least 61 bears or more are present during all or part of the year in the Swan watershed.

This Large Panorama shows most the Swan Mountain Range from near Seeley Lake to Swan Lake. The mostly rural undeveloped nature of the Upper Swan Valley is clearly displayed along with the proposed Swan Face Bud Moore Wilderness, and Holland Lake, Falls and Pass.

While the Swan Valley is critical habitat for the bear, it also functions as an important habitat link for bears moving back and forth from the Bob Marshall/ Wilderness complex on the east, to the the Mission Mountain Wilderness on the west. They use natural corridors like Holland Pass to cross back and forth over the Swan Range.  In addition, the Swan is identified as the key linkage to the Bitteroot/Selway Wilderness Complex to the South and the MIssion Valley to the West.[13]


[1] Bates, Sarah. 2010. Remarkable beyond borders: people and landscapes in the Crown of the Continent. Phoenix. Sonoran Institute.

[2] American Wildlands. 2009. Priority Linkage Assessment Crown of the Continent.

[3] Mercer, J.K Ed. 2010. The Swan Valley and Condon community profile. Condon, MT. Swan Valley Growth Policy Committee Report. 135 pages. Available electronically from: http://www.co.missoula.mt.us/rural/pdfs/SVCCProfiledraft-11_15_10.pdf

[4] Greenlee, J. 1999. Ecologically significant wetlands in the Flathead, Stillwater and Swan River Valleys. Final report June 1, 1999. Montana Natural Heritage Program.

[5] Personal communication with Tom Parker, Northwest Connections 2010.

[6] From Mike Pallidini, Swan Ecosystem Center

[7] Montana Natural Heritage Program. 2010. Field Guide. Revised May, 2010. <http://fieldguide.mtnhp.org>

[8] Gardner, Beth 2009. Aquatic Habitat Monitoring in the Swan Valley, Unpublished report, USFS, Flathead National Forest.

[9] Ibid

[10] Upper Swan Valley Habitat Types; Flathead National Forest. Map produced 2010.

[11] Ibid

[12] Costello, C.M., and L.L. Roberts. 2021. Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Monitoring Team Annual Report, 2020. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 490 N. Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT 59901.

[13] U.S.G.S. 2004. Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project.