15 June 2013

Urban Botany: Natural Vegetation Restoration on the Butte Hill

As EcoRover readers probably hear too often, Butte, Montana is ground zero for America's largest Superfund site, with natural resource damages stemming from a century of copper mining and smelting. Most mining and all smelting ceased in the 1980s, and since then the area has been making a steady recovery. Some areas, such as Silver Bow Creek, have been cleaned-up and restored to--the creek even has a good population of native Westslope cutthroat trout now. In the big picture, it's all very good (view of the Pintler Mountains from behind my home):

But let's look closely. We are spending hundreds of million of dollars on clean-up and restoration, and I agree with spending our hard-won Superfund and Natural Resource Damage lawsuit money carefully. Prioritize clean-up that protects human health and clean-up that removes toxic materials. Some areas, such as the creek, need intensive restoration to recover in terms of human time. Other area, such as the Butte Hill, are doing just fine thanks to "natural" recovery: remove the phyto-toxic mine tailings, plant grasses, and let nature take its course. Maybe add some alfalfa to aid nitrogen fixation (alfalfa is initially hardy but seems to die away after a few years)--like this volunteer growing through a crack in an abandoned road:

For animal life, grass goes a long ways. If you do want to spend a lot of money to accelerate wildlife recovery, focus on shrubs such as Sagebrush and Rabbitbrush (Ericameria spp):

If you want to boost bird populations, Mountain Ash (Sorbus spp) is a good bet, and also very beautiful at all seasons of the year (in fall it turns red-orange):

In wetter areas, Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is a natural for birds (and makes tasty good jam):

Some hardy apple trees also do just fine in our urban margins, such as this blossoming beauty near Montana Tech (my little college):

When it comes to flowers, a number of natives and exotics are taking over the Butte Hill, all without the aid of a gardener's hoe. While pretty to look at, I'm not sure they play a large role in recovering wildlife. Still, pretty things such as Rockroses (aka Bitterroot Lewisia rediviva) are a personal favorite. It emblemizes survival in a harsh landscape, and is just now coming into bloom (the leaves die away as the buds form):

Each year, the climate variation favors one species over others. This year, the lucky winner was Longleaf Phlox (Phlox longifolia)--superabundant on the Butte Hill behind my house:

Several flowering plants deserve special recognition for the way they colonize minewaste sites and even out-compete that most aggressive of noxious invasives, Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa)--here shown growing through a crack in an abandoned road:

Like alfalfa, Lupines (Lupinus spp) are a nitrogen-fixer/soil-improver, but they are native and do quite well after forest fires or mining:

The seemingly fragile (and fun to say) Fuzzy-tongue Penstemon (Penstemon eriantherus) often grows from mine tailings or coarse granitic soil that won't even support knapweed:

This one really rolls off your tongue, in English or Latin: Silverleaf Scorpionweed (Phacelia hastata); like penstemon or lupine, it seems to grow where almost nothing else will:

Along the alley behind my home, exotic little poppies have taken over the shady, north-facing edges:

And in my yard, of course, there is the most fearsome wild creature of all, which Germans call Loewenzahne ("Lion's Teeth") but for us is the nefarious dandelion:

I do have a cure for those who are obsessed with vanquishing dandelions from their yard: surrender. And eat them--picked when the flower buds first form, they are my favorite "wild" green. Steam over a slice or two of bacon, of course.

Spring Trout Fishing

Spring trout fishing in southwest Montana involves choices, all in Butte's backyard: The intimacy of a small stream loaded with Eastern brook trout and the occasional large, spawning rainbow? A mid-elevation lake (ice free before July) with colorful cutthroats? The Big Hole River with peak snow-melt run-off but big bugs and big trout? Yes to all.

I do relatively little lake fishing, but occasionally seek out the solitude that comes from a pleasant hike, and the colorful treasures (in this case a Yellowstone cutthroat trout):

Along the way, there are other treasures to be found. Though I have hiked this area dozens of times, I somehow always missed this intact though long-forgotten miner's cabin:

From the inside, it appears that hunters may have used it seasonally for some years after it was abandoned by the full-time resident miner:

I like the old bedroll, tied up and hung from the ceiling to discourage mice:

Outside, c. 1940 Dodge truck (flathead 6 engine, NO BULLET HOLES!!!):

Trees growing in the road to the cabin indicate it's been abandoned c. 40 years. What you discover when you take the road less traveled by...

This past week, the lilacs on the Butte Hill were in full bloom: 

Blooming lilacs = hatching salmon flies on the Big Hole River: 

 These large stone flies are a favorite food of large trout, and make for good fishing (though often a nymph works better than a dry fly, though occasionally big trout do slash leap from the water to grab a mouthful): 

After fishing, time for a little high-bank diving and stick-fetching for MollyTheDog:

The largest trout of the day came during a hailstorm with buckshot-sized hail pelting the river (and me). It was worth it, though I did not chance drawing my camera during the downpour. Back at home, after supper with sun setting, a brilliant nearly-vertical rainbow lit the sky: