19 April 2013

High and Dry (and Cold): Butte, Montana Springtime

You would never know it's spring according to the thermometer, with daytime highs in the low 30s deg F and nights in the teens or even single digits. Still, the land tells us a different story. The quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) buds say, "Let's go!":

Mountain bluebirds are in the nesting boxes, though I don't know how they can possibly find enough bugs to eat with this weather:

Biscuitroots (Lomatium cous) are in bloom, though the cold weather has stunted them. Normally the stems are 4" or so, but these are like a dwarf variety, barely an inch long:

Bitterroots (Lewisia rediviva) are more plentiful than ever, and must have some sort of antifreeze in their tissues, for they seem totally unaffected by the cold:

Why are there so many bitterroots in the past few years on the hill behind my house, whereas 20 years ago I was hard-pressed to find even one? Walkerville (near Butte Montana) is part of a historic mining and smelting district, and was heavily polluted by a century of this industrial activity. I live in a recovering ecosystem. Many people seem to think you can just plant grass and flowers on minewaste, and the ecosystem will magically restore itself. Like many things in nature, it's not that simple or easy. My botany expert friends, Grant Mitman and Martha Apple, tell me it's all about the moss as a critical step in making the way for vascular plants:

In the photo above, you can see the bitterroot rosette poking up through the moss, apparently supplying the nutrients and micro-climate the plant needs. The photo below tells an even bigger story. There is the bitterroot rosette and the moss, but also some cottontail rabbit droppings, dried spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) stems and seedheads, and a chunk of milky quartz. Quartz veins were blasted by miners in search of silver and gold; knapweed came as invasive weed (perhaps even planted intentionally as ground cover) when nothing else would grow; and the rabbits and native forbs have come as the most recent stage in this process of biological and historical succession:

Here's MollyTheDog in a snowy spot where quartz was blasted out of the ground. Appropriately enough, this is called a "dog hole:"

Despite the cold weather, it has been exceptionally dry. We even had a little grass fire (a rare spring event) in the hills out back:

Walking in these hills behind my house a few nights ago, I yipped back and forth with a pack of coyotes. To my surprise, a booming howl came rolling down from a higher, timbered ridges a mile to the north. Hmmm... that's interesting. So I hiked up that way a day later, and lo and behold found wolf tracks in scattered patches of snow. This is the first time I have seen wolf sign so close to the town--usually, they stay back 5 or so miles:

We also ran into small herd of mule deer; their numbers seem to have increased markedly near Butte in recent years, which helps explain the wolf:

On a rare warm, sunny day, Mrs Rover and I took in the soothing waters at Boulder Hot Springs, a half-hour to the north:

On another of those rare warm days, I got out for a few hours of fishing (and a few trout) on the Jefferson River with little brother A.J.:

Well, as they say about Hell and North Dakota, "It's not spring yet, but you can see it from here."