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.


Richard Gibson said...

Nice, Pat, as always. Thanks.

Should Fish More said...

I've not seen the lilacs as lush as this year in awhile, must be the recent rain.

Judy said...

Good to see that people are repairing all the damage caused by the mining!!!

Janie said...

Interesting post. Good to see that so many native plants will thrive, even in contaminated conditions.
I've long since given up on the battle against dandelions. I refuse to poison them, and digging them up would be way too much work.
So, we coexist, and that works just fine.

troutbirder said...

Really enjoyed your recent flyfishing posts and also the info on the rehabbing of the poisoned landscape. Encouraging news, for a change, on all fronts...:)

Maria said...

We have a lot of that fuzzy tongue penstemon growing on the prairie. The bigger cities use it heapingly on medians. It is pretty and thrives if you leave it alone.

ZielonaMila said...

Wonderful photographs, I like to admire such images:) Greetings

Secret Agent Woman said...

I'm one of those people intent on vanquishing dandelions from my yard. But I don't use chemicals - I just keep patiently digging them up.

And that clovery stiff is alfalfa? I have that in my yard, too, and hate it.

Tanya Murray - Education Online PhD said...

Thank you for posting the information about the Superfund site. As I live in the northeast, I very rarely read about issues in Montana. These are great tips on how to help the area recover, especially the nitrogen-fixers. It is encouraging to see so many native plants are still thriving in the difficult conditions.


BLD in MT said...

Surrender and eat them. Great advice. And made me smile.