Montana Valley and Foothill Grasslands, Part A

This ecoregion includes grasslands along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains (the Rocky Mountain Front) of Montana and Alberta, as well as the semiarid high mountain valleys defined by the Missouri River and its tributaries and the Yellowstone River and its tributaries.  The grassland continues west of  grasslands around Flathead Lake are also included in this ecoregion.

Within the Rocky Mountain Front area are hills and scattered buttes.  Evidence of glaciation is present in many areas, with pothole lakes, glacial moraines, and outwash plains. The grassland surrounding the Little Belt Mountains is limestone-rich,with some caverns in hills east of the Elkhorn Mountains. To the south, the area of the Missouri headwaters and upper Yellowstone tends to be more arid, with sagebrush steppe.  Other areas with sagebrush steppe are the Big Hole valley, Madison Valley, and Beaverhead River valley.

On the Rocky Mountain Front between Choteau, Montana and the Pine Butte Swamp, fossil remains of embryonic, hatchling, juvenile, and adult dinosaurs were found at Egg Mountain in 1979. The Egg Mountain site and the general vicinity has produced remains of adult and embryonic individuals of duck-billed dinosaurs and several other species.  There are several thousand individual fossils.  Each nest held 22 to 30 eggs, hatching babies about a foot long. The eggs appear to represent communal nests (Varrichio et al. 2008). Study of the juvenile dinosaur bones preserved at the Two Medicine Formation indicated that growth plates were present.  Growth plates are discs of cartilage found in birds that are involved in rapid bone elongation during development. The presence of growth plates provided additional evidence that birds are evolutionarily linked to dinosaurs and that dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds (Barreto et al. 1993). Rapid bone growth also implies that these dinosaurs were warm-blooded. Another major implication and finding from the studies of the Two Medicine Formation are that dinosaurs provided parental care, and that that care was provided by both males and females.  This finding indicates that bird parental care originated with their dinosaur ancestors (Varricchio et al. 2008). The climate where the dinosaurs nested is believed to have been semiarid, and this is confirmed by insect trace fossils of wasps and bees and their burrows that are visible in the rocks.  There are so many cocoons that the outcrop is nicknamed Pete’s Pupa Peninsula (Martin and Varricchio 2011).

As a result of the discoveries of dinosaurs on the Rocky Mountain front, the vicinity of Choteau attracted amateur fossil hunters, some of which trespassed on private property and damaged fossil localities (Potera 1995).  In order to get some control over the situation, the Nature Conservancy purchased Egg Mountain, which is now owned by the Museum of the Rockies. The Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum, Montana, offers field paleontology workshops at sites on the Rocky Mountain front.

The Montana Valley and Foothill grasslands contains a key archaeological site related to the peopling of the Americas.  Evidence from molecular, genetic, and archaeological records suggests that humans dispersed from southern Siberia, in the Trans-Baikal region (subject of a future post) after the last glacial maximum, arriving in the Americas as the continental ice sheet receded and a coastal corridor opened up.  The founding population is believed to be as low at 5,000 (Goebel, Waters, and O’Rourke 2008), and there are believed to have been several waves of migration.

By about 11,000 years before present (BP), a distinctive type of fluted stone projectile point, along with bone and ivory tools, was in use throughout the Americas, known as the Clovis point. Bone and ivory tools were used as foreshafts to attach fluted projectile points, which provided a weapon that could slay mammoths and other large animals, helping to explain how early hunters were able to kill animals 12 feet in height and weighting several tons (Lahren and Bonnichsen 1974).  It is believed that Clovis technology originated and spread throughout North America in as little as 200 years (Waters and Stafford 2007). In 1968 near Wilsall, Montana, in this ecoregion, a child skeleton was found in a burial at the Anzick site. The burial was in a rockshelter near a buffalo jump. The site also included one other skeleton and over 100 stone and bone artifacts (Lahren and Bonnichsen 1974).  One skeleton has been dated to 12,600 years BP. In 2014, the full genome was reconstructed, and the results confirm that the individual was related to the Central and South American Indian community, which is in turn related to the Siberian people (Rasmussen et al. 2014).

The Butte-Anaconda area is the nation’s largest National Historic Landmark District, as described below.  However, over 100 years of mining at Butte and Anaconda produced a large concentration of areas in the floodplain that are contaminated with metals.  These areas extend from Butte and Walkerville 26 miles downstream along Silver Bow and the Clark Fork River. Metals also accumulated in the Milltown Reservoir area upstream from Missoula.  These areas are currently in various stages of cleanup as Superfund sites.

There are 11 National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) in the Montana Valley and Foothill Grasslands, including the nation’s largest multi-site landmark at Butte.  Four sites are associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Great Falls Portage is located both upstream and downstream of present-day Great Falls, Montana; the NHL includes the upper and lower campsites and portage routes; the middle portage route has been obliterated by modern-day Malmstrom AFB and the city of Great Falls. The portage lands in the NHL are privately owned. The lower portage campsite is one mile downstream from the mouth of Belt Creek (N47˚37’ W111˚3’). It includes the campsite, Sulphur Spring, which is opposite of the mouth of Belt Creek, the gorge below Morony Dam, and the portage corridor to the east end of Malmstrom AFB (N47˚30’ W111˚9’). The upper portage includes a site on River Drive, south of Great Falls, on the east bank of the Missouri River (N47˚28’ W111˚18’). The portage corridor extends northeast to Mount Olivet Cemetery (N47˚29’ W111˚15’).

Missouri Headwaters State Park (N45˚56’ W111˚30’) protects the Three Forks of the Missouri NHL. Trails lead to the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison, which is the beginning of the Missouri River, and to Fort Rock, an overlook of the area. The confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers contains riparian habitat that supports passerines. It is an IBA for red-naped sapsucker, least flycatcher, and catbird. It is reached from Exit 278 on I-90 at Three Forks.

Traveler’s Rest State Park (N46˚45’ W114˚6’) is just off of U.S. Route 12 west of U.S. Route 93 along Lolo Creek. It houses the only archaeologically verified campsite of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The actually centuries-old campsite was used from September 9-11, 1805, on the way west, and then again from June 30 to July 3, 1806, on the return trip. In 2002, a latrine, cooking fire, and other artifacts were found, reinforcing its status as a pivotal site on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Camp Disappointment (N48˚40’ W112˚49’) is a privately owned site between Browning and Cut Bank. This meadow located below a large cliff beside Cut Bank Creek is the most likely location of the northernmost camp of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806. The expedition group exploring this area was led by Meriwether Lewis, and the purpose of this circuit was to determine if any tributary of the Missouri reached the latitude of 50 degrees north. The disappointment was that the river system did not contain tributaries reaching that far north. It was important to know the northern extent of the drainage of the Missouri River, because this would define the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase territory and the future United States boundary between Lake of the Woods and the Pacific (other tributaries of the Missouri, notably the Milk and Frenchman Rivers, do extend north of the 49th parallel but not north of the 50th). Later diplomacy set the boundary at the 49th parallel, where it remains today.  At the camp, Lewis and his group encountered the Blackfeet Indians. When the Indians attempted to steal the guns and drive off their horses, three Indians were killed, the only deaths of Indians during the entire journey. Also at the site is a 300-foot-high cliff which was a buffalo jump. The creek which washes by the foot of the cliff has exposed animal bones.

Four NHLs are associated with territorial history. Bannack State Park and Whites Bear Mine (BLM)) (N45˚10’ W113˚0’), are Montana’s first territorial capital and the site of the first gold discovery in 1862. The state site includes 50 buildings along Main Street. About half of the buildings are pre-1890 and from the territorial period, including the Masonic Temple, Methodist Church, and Court House/Hotel. Ditches were dug to bring water 30 miles to increase water supply. The NHL includes the town, the gallows site, and the Whites Bar Mine (two miles east on Grasshopper Creek).

Virginia City Historic Properties, Montana Heritage Commission, and Virginia City Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (N45˚18’ W111˚57’), are on State Route 287. Virginia City and nearby Nevada City are gold mining boom towns from the 1860s. There are over 100 buildings complete with artifacts and furnishings in Virginia City, and 14 buildings in Nevada City with 100 other buildings moved from elsewhere to create a living history exhibit. The state owns a quarter of the buildings in Virginia City and all of Nevada City.

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (N46˚25’ W112˚45’), on I-90 at Exit 184 on the north side of Deer Lodge, commemorates the role of cattlemen and the open range cattle industry in American history. The period of significance for the ranch is 1862 to 1919, when the ranch was headquarters of a ten-million-acre cattle empire. The site is 1,618 acres on the Clark Fork River. Ranch buildings, which have original furnishings, are on site. Ranching activities continue for historical interpretation.

C.M. Russell Museum (N47˚31’ W111˚17’) includes the home and studio of America’s foremost western artist, Charles M. Russell.  He first went to Montana four years after Custer’s last stand and was able to witness Montana territory before it was settled. At that time, there were Indian tribes pursuing tranditional activities and large herds of buffalo. He recorded his experiences in paintings, and in 1886 had a painting displayed at the St. Louis Art Exposition. After riding the range, he settled in Great Falls in 1900 to paint full time. In the statuary hall of the U.S. Capitol, a statue of Russell represents the state of Montana. The National Historic Landmark house and studio are included in a larger complex called the C.M. Russell Museum, owned by the City of Great Falls.

The remaining three sites are associated with the statehood period and 20th century history of Montana.  Butte-Anaconda Historic District includes the towns of Anaconda and Walkerville and the track of the Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific Railway between Butte and Anaconda. There are 5,991 contributing properties, making this the nation’s largest NHL. This area was designated because of its historic copper production, its role in westward expansion, and its part in the history of the labor movement in the U.S.

The Anaconda portion of the district (N46˚8’ W112˚57’) is a late 19th century company town, where the company operated the smelters, railroad, bank, newspaper, hotel, and other properties. There are three historic districts included in the Anaconda portion of the NHL. The Anaconda Commercial District is a 12-block area on State Route 1 at Main Street. To the west is the West Side Neighborhood, which was built for professional and managerial classes, and to the east is the Goosetown neighborhood, built for the workers. The original copper smelters, known as the Anaconda Old Works, were constructed in two sites on the north edge of town. The copper smelters were established at the beginning of the electrification of the country, and the need for copper wire led to a 30-year boom as the world’s greatest copper-producing center.

Copper ore was transported between Butte and Anaconda by the Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific Railroad, which is a constitutent of the NHL. The main rail yard for the Butte Anaconda, and Pacific RR is located on the northwest side of Anaconda (N46˚8’ W112˚58’). There are 41 miles of track. The Anaconda Depot and Roundhouse are outstanding examples of railroad architecture.

The smelters in Anaconda created large amounts of sulfur and arsenic-laden smoke, which, in addition to affecting human health, damaged vegetation in the Deerlodge NF and nearby farms. As a result, a tall smokestack with pollution control equipment was built for the new Washoe works to the east of Anaconda. The Old Works closed with the opening of the new facility in 1902. Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park, Montana (N46˚7’ W112˚56’) is the largest free-standing brick structure in the world. At 585 feet, it is on a hill overlooking Anaconda and is part of the NHL. The smelters have been dismantled, so it is all that remains of the industrial properties. To reduce pollution of Warm Springs Creek, tailing ponds were constructed.

Butte was originally established as a gold rush town in 1864. The gold mines were quickly supplanted by the silver mines (1874), then copper mines (1880s), to which the town owes its existence. By 1884, more than $1 million per month in copper and silver were being mined. The Centerville working class neighborhood (N46˚1’ W112˚32’) is located around the headframes and mine entrances just to the north of downtown, centered at Park and Main Streets. To the east of downtown is the Berkeley Open Pit mine.  South Butte is a distinct area with railroads and warehouses.  Butte’s Victorian era upper classes lived in the Westside neighborhood, near Montana Tech. Around town there are 14 remaining headframes that were used to haul the ore from the depths of the earth, and 15 extant mines in the city. In south Butte along Harrison Avenue north of I-90, Exit 127, is Socialist Hall (N46˚0’ W112˚31’), which opened in 1916, following the election of Socialist mayors in Anaconda and Butte during the previous decade. Passage of sedition legislation, the lynching of International Workers of the World leader Frank Little in Butte, and union-busting activities of the mining companies within a couple of years quickly ended Socialist Party activities in Montana.

Walkerville (N46˚2’ W112˚32’) is to the north of Centerville and a separate city from Butte. It is notable for its immigrant housing from the late 1800s, much of which is still standing. There are also remaining commercial buildings from the period. The Alice, Lexington, and Moulton silver mines in Walkerville were Montana’s richest.

The Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific Railway ties Centerville on the north side of Butte with Anaconda via the rail yards at Rocker (N46˚0’ W112˚37’), where ore cars were assembled into full-length trains. At East Anaconda, the trains were disassembled into individual cars to be pulled up to the smelters.

Rankin Ranch, William D. Rankin estate, adjacent to Helena National Forest, Montana (N46˚38’ W111˚34’) is the home of Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  She spent her summers at this ranch east of today’s Canyon Ferry Lake on the edge of the Big Belt Mountains. Rankin was a lifelong advocate for women’s suffrage. She was the first woman in the world elected to a national representative body, and was elected at a time when most states did not allow women to vote, although Montana did. She served one term in 1917-1919 and another in 1941-1943. This famously put her in a position to vote against entering both world wars. She was the only representative to vote against the declaration of war on Japan. This ranch, located on Forest Highway 359 along Avalanche Gulch on the east side of Canyon Ferry Lake, was her summer home from 1923 to 1956.

Burton K. Wheeler House, Butte, Montana (N46˚0’ W112˚31’) was the home of a Montana lawyer elected to the U.S. Senate in 1922.  He initially focused on oversight of the Attorney General activities during the Teapot Dome scandal. He then ran for Vice President on the Progressive Party ticket with Robert LaFollette. An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he broke with the New Deal over the attempt to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. He was also critical of Roosevelt’s foreign policy.

There are two National Natural Landmarks (NNLs) in the Montana Valley and Foothill Grasslands. Glacial Lake Missoula, Camas Prairie Current Ripples, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation and private lands (N47˚31’ W114˚35’) can be seen from Secondary Route 382 south of Hot Springs and north of Perma. The giant current ripples indicate a flood of dramatic proportions, caused when an ice dam 2,500 feet in height near present-day Lake Pend Oreille burst and Lake Missoula drained.

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and Red Rock Lakes Wilderness, Montana (N44˚38’ W111˚47’) is an undisturbed, high altitude ecosystem representative of pre-European settlement conditions. There are wetlands, grasslands, shrublands, and forests in a valley framed by mountain peaks to the north and south.  The refuge is 69,000 acres, 32,350 acres of which is designated Wilderness. It is the largest wetland complex in the greater Yellowstone area and has played an integral role in the restoration of the trumpeter swan. The refuge supports the last endemic adfluvial population of the Arctic grayling in the lower 48 states, and provides habitat for a wintering moose population. To provide greater protection for the area, the Centennial Valley Conservation Easement Program plans to acquire up to 42,000 acres of easements.  Bureau of Land Management (BLM) properties within the conservation easement acquisition boundaries are managed as the Centennial Valley Wetland and Waterfowl Production Area and the Centennial Sandhills Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The Nature Conservancy’s Centennial Sandhills preserve is also in this area.

A number of units of the National Forest System include Montana Valley and Foothill Grasslands habitats. The following sites are located in the ecoregion. The Beaverhead NF includes the Lima-Tendoy Landscape of the Beaverhead Mountains and Tendoy Mountains.  In this area the grasslands transition directly to rocky peaks without an intervening band of forest. Browns Creek (N45˚8’ W113˚15’) and Deadman Creek (N44˚28’ W112˚51’) are considered eligible for the wild and scenic river system.  Horse Prairie Research Natural Area (RNA) (N45˚1 W113˚19’) is fenced to exclude livestock and includes sagebrush-fescue habitats with some Douglas-fir forests.

Bitterroot NF contains scattered tracts in the Bitterroot Valley. The Darby Ranger Station, Visitor Center, and Museum (N46˚2’ W114˚11’), is a facility of the National Museum of Forest Service History. Sawmill Creek RNA (N46˚27’ W113˚53’) is east of Stevensville off Forest Road 710 in the Sapphire Range. This contains the best remaining grassland in the Bitterroot Valley and a dry conifer forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and Rocky Mountain juniper.

Lewis and Clark NF, Montana, includes the Highwood Mountains in the Montana Valley and Foothill Grasslands ecoregion. The 7,000-foot Highwood Mountains are 45,000 acres and include a mosaic of timber, meadow, and rock outcrops. They are volcanic in origin. Thain Creek Campground (N47˚29’ W110˚35’) is a hiking area with a six-mile loop trail.

In the Lolo NF, the Blue Mountain trail system (46˚50’ W114˚5’) is two miles southwest of Missoula off of U.S. Route 93, with 41 miles of trails. The Remount Depot at Ninemile Visitor Center and Ninemile Wildlands Training Center, located at Exit 85 on I-90, is a historic site used for mule breeding for fighting fires (N47˚2’ W114˚19’). Council Grove RNA (N46˚55’ W114˚11’) is a riparian flood terrace on the Clark Fork River adjacent to Council Grove State Park just west of Missoula. A 33-km stretch of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers on the Lolo NF boundary from US 12 (N46˚50’ W114˚3’) downstream to Frenchtown (N47˚0’ W114˚16’) is an IBA for Lewis’s woodpecker, red-naped sapsucker, and waterfowl.

The National Park system in the Montana Valley and Foothill Grasslands includes Grant-Kohrs Ranch, previously described under NHLs. Nez Perce National Historical Park, a multi-unit park in Idaho-Montana-Oregon-Washington, commemorates the sites, stories, and artifacts of the Nez Perce Tribe. Big Hole National Battlefield, Montana (N45˚39’ W113˚39’) is one of 38 units of the park. Approximately one-half mile of trails lead to important sites of the 1877 battlefield, including the Nez Perce campsite and the siege site where the soldiers were penned down.


Barreto, Claudio et al. 1993.  Evidence of the Growth Plate and the Growth of Long Bones in Juvenile Dinosaurs.  Science 262:2020-2023.

Goebel, Ted, Michael R. Waters and Dennis H. O’Rourke. 2008. The Late Pleistocene Dispersal of Modern Humans in the Americas.  Science 319:1497-1502.

Lahren, Larry, and Robson Bonnichsen. 1974. Bone Foreshafts from a Clovis Burial in Southwestern Montana. Science 186:147-150.

Martin, Anthony J. and David J. Varricchio. 2011. Paleoecological Utility of Insect Trace Fossils in Dinosaur Nesting Sites of the Two Medicine Formation (Campanian), Choteau, Montana.  Historical Biology 23:15-25.

Potera, Carol. 1995. Amateur Fossil Hunters Dig Up Trouble in Montana. Science 268:198-199.

Rasmussen, Morten et al.  2014.  The Genome of a Late Pleistocene Human from a Clovis Burial Site in Western Montana. Nature 506:225-229.

Varricchio, David J. et al. 2008.  Avian Parental Care Had Dinosaur Origin. Science 322:1826-1828.

Waters, Michael R. and Thomas W. Stafford Jr. 2007. Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas. Science 315:1122-1126.

to be continued