The Bridger Ridge first gained national recognition among raptor specialist as a major migratory flyway in the early 1980's. Raptor enthusiast Fred Tilly first discovered the Bridger site in 1979 and spent four migratory seasons on the ridge counting raptors through the fall of 1983. Hawkwatch International (HI) investigated the site in 1991 while looking to establish a series of monitoring stations in the western U.S. In partnership with the Gallatin National Forest and Bridger Bowl Ski Area, HI established one of sixteen Rocky Mountain raptor monitoring sites on the Bridger Bowl helicopter platform in 1991. At that time, more golden eagles had been documented at this site than any other site in the country. Since monitoring migratory activity, sixteen other species of raptors have been counted regularly using the Bridger Bowl range as a migratory flyway through the Rocky Mountains each fall.
With interest in developing an environmental appreciation program at Bridger Bowl, Deb Ritchie of the Montana Watchable Wildlife (MWW) program was contacted and we discussed the idea of introducing the public to this major raptor migration. With the assistance of Ron Krager, biologist for the USFS, the first eagle watch field trip was led in October of 1993 with an afternoon hike to the ridge. That first year we had about 40 people participate in the hike. The following year we had about 40 car loads of people show up, with many other people taking the trip on their own throughout the week.
With interest growing rapidly in these field hikes, interest in expanding environmental education and appreciation in the Bridgers flourished as well. In the summer of 1995, a Bridger Bowl Area Interpretive plan was first drafted through cooperative efforts from the Watchable Wildlife Program of Fish Wildlife and Parks, the Gallatin National Forrest and Bridger Bowl. These efforts produced the first two of several interpretive panels that are currently displayed in the Bridger Bowl base area.
After two more seasons of eagle watching field trips, a group consisting of Ron Krager (USFS), Bettsy Spettigue (MWW), Chad Moore (MSU grad student) Mike Myers (MSU), Bobby Geise (RRC- formerly Big Sky Wildcare), Dennis Flath and Doug Wales (Bridger Bowl) met to discuss the future of raptor watching at Bridger Bowl. At the suggestion of Chad Moore, the idea of a Raptor Festival was born and enthusiastically supported by all.
1996 was the first year for the Bridger Raptor Festival, and the first event offering more than just guided field trips. The Festival was a two day program at Bridger Bowl and included displays, lectures and presentations on raptor identification, ecology and migration of all 17 different species. The attendance was outstanding with approximately 600 participants on Saturday and 400 participants on Sunday. Hundreds of people hiked to the ridge to observe the migration first hand.
Currently the Bridger Raptor Festival is a weekend program, with events starting Friday evening at the Museum of the Rockies with a Keynote Address. For the next two days the program continues with hikes, displays, lectures, adult and kid activities and live bird presentations based at the Bridger Bowl Ski Area. Last year over 4,000 people attended the event and hundreds of people still make the hike to the ridge each year.