12 May 2014

Springtime on Montana's High Desert: Wildflowers, Geology, and Wildlife

[My apologies for the long post--I've separated into sections on wildflowers, geology, and wildlife.]

It's been a wet, cold spring in Butte America, especially when compared with the shifting baseline (source of cartoon pasted below) of the past 10 to 20 years.

It's funny how, even in the brief period of a human lifetime, we shift our perception to our most recent experience. Wet, cold spring or no, as a life philosophy I embrace the words of Townes van Zandt:
Days, up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
But don't turn none away.

Non-human life is like this, too.

This is what "150% snow pack"looks like on the Pinter Mountain Range west of Butte:

I'm tired of skiing, so let's head for the dry hills.


Montana's prairie/high desert wildflowers are tough, evolved for conditions that often thwart the most determined gardener. There is a lot of plant restoration work on the mine waste Superfund site of the Butte Hill, so in part I hike the hills of the mid- to lower Big Hole River valley as research/field trips to reference sites with soils and rainfall (and therefore plant assemblages) similar to the Butte Hill--locations at 5,000 to 6,000 feet elevation, and 10 - 12 inches of annual precipitation.

Throughout the dry uplands of southwest Montana, bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) rosettes are among the first signs of spring (they'll bloom in late June/early July):

As first bloomer, biscuitroot (Lomatium cous) usually wins the prize:

It's relatives are not far behind, or perhaps they bloom just as early but I don't see them because they are less common? Here's nineleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum): 

And desert parsley (Lomatium macrocarpum). Note that all of the biscuitroots have, as the name implies, fat tasty roots that were a stable for the indigenous people: 

Hooker's townsend-daisies (Townsendia hookeri) form a pretty little early season bouquet:

Desert mountain phlox (Phlox austromontana) is a early season wildflower, often forming mats that look like patches of snow from a distance: 

It's close cousin, Hood's phlox (Phlox hoodii) also forms mats, with colors varying from white to pink to violet/light blue: 

Though not quite so prevalent at this relatively low elevation, mountain douglasia (Douglasia montana) also forms mats, sometimes of especially striking color:

The many species of milkvetches or locoweeds are difficult to distinguish, but I think this is
Missouri milkvetch (Astragalus missouriensis), shown here competing with Hood's phlox to see which can survive best on dry talus:

Here's a white locoweed, maybe Oxytropis sericea, but the leaflets are much more elongated than normal (note the near neighbor, prickly pear cactus): 

Desert Indian paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia) is striking when the stems and leaves are efflorescent: 

On a pile of mineralized mine tailings, I was surprised to find clumps of Nuttall's violets (Viola nuttallii). My high school friend, Gary Robertson, pointed out to me that violets have an amazing ability to absorb high levels of metals:

Given their abundance on the Butte Hill (far more common there than here on the lower Big Hole), I wonder if cutleaf fleabane (Erigeron compositus) is also unusually metals tolerant: 

No trip is complete without its mystery flower. I'm fairly certain this is a bladderpod (Physaria spp), but I've not seen a Physaria with bitterroot-like, tubular leaves:

Nuttall's pussytoes (Antennaria parvifolia) round out the list of flowers found over the past week on the drier, upland slopes:

Even on the desert prairie, there are places that are a little wetter and protected. Here you'll find longleaf phlox (Phlox longifolia) a common and widespread forb. It seems to compete well with knapweed (an invasive species), the plant with deeply divided, lance-shaped leaves on the left: 

This narrow-leaved puccoon (Lithospermum incisum), not very common in Montana, was a good find along a wash: 

In somewhat more protected places, such as the shaded side of coulees or even under big sagebrush, are shootingstars (probably Dodecatheon conjugens; knapweed on left). Up higher, in wetter areas, they'll often have several flowers on each stem, but here on the desert there is little energy wasted: 

In the same area, as a competitor, are yellowbells (Fritillaria pudica): 

Sagebrush bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia) can be found hidden in the prairie grass; just a few inches tall, they seem stunted in this place: 
Before we leave the plant section, say "Hi" to my favorite plant in this area, the relatively rare
Simpson's hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii). They're not quite in bloom, but it won't be long: 


Sandy Hollow is a geological train wreck, with a big old volcanic mesa (Block Mountain) next to complex tight folds and thrusts of various sedimentary rocks. I don't pretend to have more than a passing knowledge of geology, but it's a cool place to hike about.

Let's start with the 59-million year old basalt flow, Block Mountain:

Ground zero was the volcano cinder cone(s) such as this fast-cooled, highly fragmented basalt:

Dave Carter makes his way up columnar (slow cooled) basalt steps:

Close up of the steps:

And a more distant view of a basalt column cliff face:

There are some good views from the top of Block Mountain, across the Big Hole River valley to the Hogback:

And toward Sandy Hollow:

Let's check out Sandy Hollow, beginning with a long view of the geological train wreck:

Up a little closer, and there are features like this limestone reef, a layer of rock stood on end:

Sometimes, there are fossils in the limestone:

I can only imagine what sort of uplift and erosion of a dome occurred to produce this ring of fire:

I think some of the magma flowing from Block Mountain encased these river cobbles (volcanic breccia?):

Hmmmm.... So if the basalt magma trapped these cobbles 59 million years ago, how old are the cobbles? They must have started as beach sand, then been buried and metamorphosized into quartzite, then been uplifted, eroded into pieces, and then tumbled in a stream bed:
We had two pleasant finds on this hike. One was this old USGS survey marker,  or benchmark:

The other was this unusual spring flowing up from a low rise of limestone. I wonder if it's a year-round source of water for the wildlife here?:

MollyTheDog strikes a pose and says, "Rocks? Who cares about rocks? Where're the critters?":


OK, bring on the critters. On our way up from the river, we were serenaded by the pterodactyl-like cries of, and treated to a flyover by, the Sandhill Crane people:

Here's a question: Given the cool weather and lack of bees and even ants this time of year, what is pollinating all of these flowers that are in bloom? I wonder if this Beetle has something to do with it:

This Golden Eagle couldn't resist checking us out, or maybe it was thinking about making a meal of one of our dogs:

Though scarce, we seldom hike this area without bumping into a few Mule Deer:

More surprising was this big gang of Elk. What are they doing here?:

Ah, but who is this, peaking at us from over a low ridge? Sure enough, a small herd of curious Big Horn Sheep people:

Though from a trip in the opposite direction from Butte as the Big Hole River, this pleasant sunset view of the Anaconda Smelter Stack makes for a pleasant end of blog closing. See you in the hills!