Rocky Mountain Dry-Mesic Montane Mixed Conifer Forest
Provisional State Rank
This ecological system, composed of highly variable montane conifer forests, is found throughout Montana. It is associated with a submesic climate regime with annual precipitation ranging from 250 to 1,000 millimeters (10-39 inches), with most precipitation occurring during winter, and April through June. Winter snowpacks typically melt off in early spring at lower elevations. Elevations range from valley bottoms to 1,676 meters (5,500 feet) in northwestern Montana and up to 2,286 meters (7,500 feet) on warm aspects in southern Montana. In northwestern and west-central Montana, this ecosystem forms a forest belt on warm, dry to slightly moist sites. It generally occurs on gravelly soils with good aeration and drainage and a neutral to slightly acidic pH. In the western part of the state, it is seen mostly on well drained mountain slopes and valleys from lower treeline to up to 1,676 meters (5,500 feet). Immediately east of the Continental Divide, in north-central Montana, it occurs at montane elevations. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is the dominant conifer both as a seral and climax species. West of the Continental Divide, occurrences can be dominated by any combination of Douglas-fir and long-lived, seral western larch (Larix occidentalis), grand fir (Abies grandis), ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and western white pine (Pinus monticola) have a minor status, with western white pine only in extreme western Montana. East of the Continental Divide, larch is absent and lodgepole pine is the co-dominant. Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), white spruce, (Picea glauca)or their hybrid, become increasingly common towards the eastern edge of the Douglas-fir forest belt.
montane elevations, mixed coniferous forests, Abies grandis, ustic soils
Douglas-fir and grand fir are the climax species in a broad forest belt at montane elevations throughout the western Montana Rocky Mountains. East of the Continental Divide, including the mountain island ranges of west-central and south-central Montana, Douglas-fir is the climax species. Elsewhere, this forest system is a low to montane elevational forest in the interior Pacific Northwest, ranging from southern interior British Columbia, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and northern Idaho east to Montana, and south along the eastern slope of the Cascade Range in Washington and Oregon.
Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 10,827 square kilometers are classified as Rocky Mountain Dry-Mesic Montane Mixed Conifer Forest in the 2016 Montana Land Cover layers.
Grid on map is based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map boundaries.
Montana Counties of Occurrence
BEAVERHEAD, BIG HORN, BLAINE, CARBON, CASCADE, CHOUTEAU, DEER LODGE, FERGUS, FLATHEAD, GALLATIN, GLACIER, GOLDEN VALLEY, GRANITE, HILL, JUDITH BASIN, LAKE, LEWIS AND CLARK, LIBERTY, LINCOLN, MADISON, MINERAL, MISSOULA, MUSSELSHELL, PARK, PHILLIPS, PONDERA, POWELL, RAVALLI, SANDERS, STILLWATER, SWEET GRASS, TETON, TOOLE, WHEATLAND
In northwestern and west-central Montana, this ecosystem forms a forest belt on warm, dry to moist sites. It is associated with a submesic climate regime with annual precipitation ranging from 250 to 1,000 millimeters (10-39 inches), with most precipitation occurring during winter, and April through June. Winter snowpacks typically melt off in early spring at lower elevations. Elevations range from valley bottoms to 1,676 meters (5,500 feet) in northwestern Montana and up to 2,286 meters (7,500 feet) on warm aspects in southern Montana. In northwestern and west-central Montana, this ecosystem forms a forest belt on warm, dry to slightly moist sites. It generally occurs on gravelly soils with good aeration and drainage and a neutral to slightly acidic pH. In the western part of the state, it is seen mostly on well-drained mountain slopes and in valleys from lower treeline to up to 1,676 meters (5,500 feet). Immediately east of the Continental Divide, in north-central Montana, it occurs at montane elevations.
Douglas-fir is the dominant conifer; west of the Continental Divide, occurrences are dominated by a mix of Douglas-fir and long-lived, seral western and other species, including lodgepole pine and western white pine. East of the Continental Divide, larch is absent and lodgepole pine is the co-dominant. Engelmann spruce or white spruce, or their hybrid, becomes increasingly common towards the eastern edge of the Douglas-fir forest belt. Grand fir may occur in this forest type, but is typically confined to relatively warm and moister sites in northwestern and west-central Montana.
Undergrowth is dominated by graminoids, such as bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), Columbia brome(Bromus vulgaris),blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus), pinegrass (Calamagrostis rubescens), Geyer’s sedge (Carex geyeri), and Ross’ sedge (Carex rossii). Common forbs that occur in the understory include American pathfinder (Adenocaulon bicolor), heartleaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia), queen’s cup beadlily (Clintonia uniflora), twinflower (Linnaea borealis), and beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax). The shrub understory contains a variety of shrubs, such as Rocky mountain maple (Acer glabrum), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), common juniper (Juniperus communis), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), mallow ninebark(Physocarpus malvaceus), common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), birch leaf spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia), dwarf bilberry (Vaccinium caespitosum) or mountain huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum)on colder, more mesic sites. In the western part of the state, the Douglas-fir/mountain huckleberry association is the most common type found in the Lolo, Bitteroot and Flathead Mountain ranges on relatively cold sites up to 2,073 meters (6,800 feet) (Pfister et al, 1977).
Alliances and Associations
- (A.157) Douglas-fir Forest Alliance
- (A.552) Douglas-fir Woodland Alliance
- (A.153) Grand Fir Forest Alliance
- (A.134) Ponderosa Pine - Douglas-fir Forest Alliance
- (A.533) Ponderosa Pine - Douglas-fir Woodland Alliance
- (A.133) Western White Pine Forest Alliance
Douglas-fir and all associated seral species regenerate well following fire, and all, with the exception of lodgepole pine, tolerate repeated low intensity surface fires. In the absence of disturbance, the longevity and fire resistance of western larch, along with Douglas-fir, lead to them being co-dominant in many areas of western Montana. Douglas-fir and grand fir continue to regenerate under shaded conditions, and these too may become dominant in undisturbed stands. Presettlement fire regimes may have been characterized by frequent, low-intensity ground fires that maintained relatively open stands of a mix of fire-resistant species. Under present conditions, the fire regime is mixed severity and more variable, with stand-replacing fires more common, and the forests are more homogeneous. With vigorous fire suppression, longer fire-return intervals are now common, and multi-layered stands of conifers provide fuel "ladders," making these forests more susceptible to high-intensity, stand-replacing fires. These are very productive forests which have been priorities for timber production.
In the absence of natural fire, periodic prescribed burns can be used to maintain this system.
Restoration strategies will depend largely on the severity of the fire. Early successional stages may be dominated by fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) and other forbs, graminoids and understory shrubs. Dominant species such as Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine and western larch regenerate well following fire. However, prolonged drought conditions and high soil temperatures on bare mineral soils can impede natural regeneration.
Intense fires occurring during summer months cause considerable damage to native perennial grasses, forbs and shrubs, and may completely destroy existing seed banks, especially on steep facing slopes and ridegtops. Steep slopes may require reseeding with native grasses to prevent soil erosion. In some cases, severely burned sites will require replanting with conifer seedlings. Generally, larger container volume of nursery stock results in higher outplanting success than bareroot nursery stock, especially where spring and early summer precipitation patterns are unpredictable, or whre exposed mineral soil temperatures are high during the first year of establishment. Generally, 6-8 cubic inch container stock types are used on milder sites with good site preparation, and 10, 15 or 20 cubic inch container stock is used on the hotter, drier aspects or sites. Conifer stocking rates must be developed on a site-by-site basis and to meet management objectives.
Species Associated with this Ecological System
- Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
How Associations Were Made
We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for
vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
- Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
- Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
- Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
- Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.
In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.
However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if
point observations were associated with that system.
Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.
The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.
If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.
Suggested Uses and Limitations
Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.
These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: http://mtnhp.org/requests/default.asp
) or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.
Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.
Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.
Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).
Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.
- Adams, R.A. 2003. Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. 289 p.
- Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34. Missoula, MT.
- Foresman, K.R. 2012. Mammals of Montana. Second edition. Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana. 429 pp.
- Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998. Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates. Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT. 1302 p.
- Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young. 1999. Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32. 72 p.
- Maxell, B.A. 2000. Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species. Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1. Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana. 161 p.
- Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath. 2004. Amphibians and reptiles of Montana. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.
- Native Species Commonly Associated with this Ecological System
- Native Species Occasionally Associated with this Ecological System
Original Concept Authors
Montana Version Authors
- Classification and Map Identifiers
Cowardin Wetland Classification:
National Vegetation Classification Standard:
||Mesomorphic Tree Vegetation (Forest and Woodland)
||Cool Temperate Forest
||Western North America Cool Temperate Forest
||Northern Rocky Mountain Lower Montane and Foothill Forest
National Land Cover Dataset:
|Element Global ID
||CES306.805, Northern Rocky Mountain Dry-Mesic Montane Mixed Conifer Forest
42: Evergreen Forest
4232: Northern Rocky Mountain Dry-Mesic Montane Mixed Conifer Forest
- Literature Cited AboveLegend: View Online Publication
- Alexander, M.E. and F.G. Hawksworth. 1976. Fire and dwarf mistletoes in North American coniferous forests. Journal of Forestry 74(7):446-449.
- Amo, S.F., M.G. Harrington, C.E. Fiedler, and C.E. Carlson. 1995. Restoring fire-dependent ponderosa pine forests in western Montana. Restoration and Management Notes 13:32-36.
- Anderson, M.D. 2003. Pinus contorta var. latifolia. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online}. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
- Barrett, S.W., S.F. Arno, and C.H. Key. 1991. Fire regimes of western larch-lodgepole pine forests in Glacier National Park, Montana. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 21(12):1711-1720.
- Hawksworth, F.G., D. Wiens, and B.W. Geils. 2002. Arceuthobium in North America. Mistletoes of North American conifers 29-56.
- Howard, J. L. 2003. Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online}. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.
- Howard, J.L. and K.C. Aleksoff. 2000. Abies grandis. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.
- Kolb, T.E.,J.K. Agee, P.Z. Fule, N.G. McDowell, K. Pearson, A.Sala, and R.H. Waring. 2007. Perpetuating old ponderosa pine. Forest Ecology and Management 249(3):141-157.
- McCune, B. 1982. Fire frequency reduced two orders of magnitude in the Bitterroot Canyons, Montana. Canadian Journal of Forest Reaseach 13:212-218.
- Negron, J.F., W.C. Schaupp, K.E. Gibson, J. Anhold, D. Hansen, R. Their, and P. Mocettini. 1999. Estimating extent of mortality associated with the Douglas-fir beetle in the central and northern Rockies. Western Journal of Applied Forestry 14(3):121-127.
- Scher, J.S. 2002. Larix occidentalis. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.
- Six, D.L. and K. Skov. 2009. Response of bark beetles and their natural enemies to fire and fire surrogate treatments in mixed-conifer forests in western Montana. Forest Ecology and Management 258(5):761-772.
- Steinberg, P. D. 2002. Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online}. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. 2012. Information from LANDFIRE on Fire Regimes of Northern Rocky Mounatin Montane Mixed-Conifer Communities. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department
- Additional ReferencesLegend: View Online Publication
Do you know of a citation we're missing?
- Arno, S. 1979. Forest regions of Montana. Research paper Int-218, USFS Intermountain and Range Experiment Station, Ogden, Utah.
- Pfister, R. D., B. L. Kovalchik, S. F. Arno, and R. C. Presby. 1977. Forest habitat types of Montana. USDA Forest Service. General Technical Report INT-34. Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Ogden, UT. 174 pp.