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Rocky Mountain Foothill Limber Pine - Juniper Woodland

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Provisional State Rank: S5

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General Description

This ecological system occurs in foothill and lower montane zones in the northern Rocky Mountains and island mountain ranges of Montana and on escarpments extending out to the western Great Plains grasslands. Elevation ranges from 1,219 to 2,286 meters (4,000-7,500 feet), occasionally higher in southwestern Montana. At higher elevations, it is limited to sites with thin soils on rock outcrops. Some of the most ecologically interesting examples occur along and within the mountains of the Rocky Mountain Front where it occurs most commonly on west and north facing aspects. At lower elevations, it can occur on all aspects and on relatively level terrain. Fire is infrequent and spotty because rocky substrates inhibit growth of the continuous canopy that would be needed to spread. This system occurs on sites that are characterized by extreme winter weather and droughty summer conditions. It is typically dominated by limber pine (Pinus flexilis) or Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum). This systemis usually found below continuous forests of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), or rarely, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) or lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) in the foothills. Rocky Mountain juniper stands often occur in complex transitional zones or grow on exposed or severe sites within other forest systems. These juniper stands can exhibit a savanna-like character in southwestern Montana. In the system as a whole, because sites are so marginal for tree growth, limber pine mortality from abiotic and biotic stresses may be high. East of the Continental Divide, limber pine can occur at the upper tree line, with whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) in Glacier National Park and the Sweetgrass Hills. The climtate characteristic of these systems is marked by a relatively small amount of precipitation, with the wettest months during the growing season, very low humidity, and wide annual and diurnal temperature ranges. Winter conditions may be very cold but relatively dry, and often include rapid fluctuations in temperature associated with chinook winds. In Montana, limber pine and Rocky Mountain juniper stands are found mainly on calcareous substrates. Soils have a high rock component (generally over 50% cover) and are coarse- to fine-textured, often gravelly. Slopes are moderately steep to steep.

Diagnostic Characteristics

forest and woodland, aridic, sandy, shallow soils, organic A horizon less than 10 cm, Pinus flexilis, Juniperus scopulorum

This system occurs in foothill and lower montane zones in the northern Rocky Mountain Front and foothills, within the island ranges, and on escarpments extending out into the western Great Plains. This system is well represented in the Gravelly Range and Beaverhead Range, and the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the Pryor Range in the southern portion of the state. It ranges from southern Alberta to central Colorado and east into North and South Dakota.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 780 square kilometers are classified as Rocky Mountain Foothill Limber Pine - Juniper Woodland in the 2013 Montana Land Cover layers.  Grid on map is based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map boundaries.

Montana Counties of Occurrence
Big Horn, Blaine, Broadwater, Carbon, Carter, Cascade, Chouteau, Custer, Dawson, Deer Lodge, Fallon, Fergus, Gallatin, Glacier, Golden Valley, Granite, Hill, Jefferson, Judith Basin, Lewis and Clark, Liberty, McCone, Meagher, Musselshell, Park, Phillips, Pondera, Powder River, Powell, Prairie, Rosebud, Silver Bow, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Teton, Toole, Valley, Wheatland, Wibaux, Yellowstone

Spatial Pattern
Large patch


The systems is usually found below continuous forests of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) or lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) in the foothills,and can occur in large stands well within the zone of continuous forests in the northern Rocky Mountains. Along the Northern Rocky Mountain Front, this system is found on west and north facing aspects in the foothills and within the mountains. At lower elevations, it can occur on all aspects and on relatively level terrain. Rocky Mountain juniper stands are often found in complex transitional zones or growing on exposed or severe sites within other forest systems. Climate is characterized by a relatively small amount of precipitation, with the wettest months during the growing season, very low humidity, and wide annual and diurnal temperature ranges. Winter conditions may be very cold but relatively dry, and often include rapid fluctuations in temperature associated with chinook winds.

In Montana, this system occurs grows mainly on limestone substrates, where roots follow the pattern of fractured and weathered rock (Burns and Honkala, 1990). Soils have a high rock component (typically over 50% cover) and are coarse- to fine-textured, often gravelly and calcareous. Soils are generally poorly developed, shallow, have low moisture holding capacity and are easily erodable, so in some occurrences, little topsoil is present. Although the system can be seen on gently rolling terrain, limestone cliffs, and exposed bluffs, it is most often found on rocky ridges and steep rocky slopes, and can survive in extremely windswept areas at both lower and upper tree line. Slopes are typically moderately steep to steep. Elevation ranges from 1,219-2,286 meters (4,000-7,500 feet) (Pfister et al, 1977). In the Beaverhead Mountain range, it occurs at higher elevations (Cooper et al, 1999).


Vegetation is characterized by an open-tree canopy or patchy woodland that is dominated by either limber pine or Rocky Mountain juniper. In the Pryor Mountains Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) is sometimes seen at its northernmost extent within this system. Douglas-fir regularly occurs, but ponderosa pine and lodgepole pine are comparatively rare within these forests. Prolonged drought and white pine blister rust (Cronartium rubicola) have decimated limber pine along the Rocky Mountain Front (and elsewhere), resulting in a skeleton woodland with scattered Douglas-firs as the only living trees. At the northern end of its range in Montana, limber pine is mostly associated with common juniper (Juniperus communis) and creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), whereas in the southern end of its range, it is associated with Rocky Mountain juniper. A sparse to moderately dense short-shrub layer is usually present. Within north-central and northwestern Montana, the most common shrubs include bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), creeping juniper, shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda),and Canadian buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis). Other shrubs that may be present in west-central and southern Montana includebig sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), black sagebrush (Artemisia nova), curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata), Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii), common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), or western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis). Herbaceous layers are generally sparse, but range to moderately dense; they are typically dominated by perennial graminoids such as blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), rough fescue (Festuca campestris), poverty oatgrass (Danthonia intermedia), spike fescue (Leucopoa kingii), needle and thread (Hesperostipa comata), prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides), Sandberg’s bluegrass (Poa secunda), or blue bunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata). Common forbs include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), fringed sage (Artemisia frigida), arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), prairiesmoke (Geum triflorum), hymenopappus (Hymenopappus species), four-nerve daisy (Hymenoxys species), dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), stone seed (Lithospermum ruderale), silver lupine (Lupinus argenteus), pricklypear (Opuntia species), crazyweed (Oxytropis species), and cushion plants such as draba (Draba species), phlox (Phlox species), Rocky Mountain douglasia (Douglasia montana) and Howard’s alpine forget-me-not (Eritrichium howardii).

This system often occurs in complex ecotones on severe sites within other forest systems. It often intergrades with Rocky Mountain Dry-Mesic Montane Mixed Conifer, Rocky Mountain Lower Montane, Foothill and Valley Grassland, Mountain Mahogany Woodland and Shrubland, and Montane Sagebrush Steppe.

Alliances and Associations
  • (A.540) Limber Pine Woodland Alliance
  • (A.506) Rocky Mountain Juniper Woodland Alliance

Dynamic Processes

Major disturbances in this system include fire, soil erosion from over-used range, and biotic vectors. These woodlands often originate with and are likely maintained by fire. Clark's nutcrackers have co-adapted an important mutualism with limber pine, and are the primary harvester and disperser of its seeds. Regeneration on burns is largely from germinants of Clark's nutcracker seed caches. Fire can easily kill young trees because of their thin bark, however, fuel loads in this system are usually light due to open rocky terrain, and usually do not generate severe fire damage.

This system occurs on dry, rocky sites that are typified by extreme winter weather and droughty summer conditions that offer marginal conditions for tree growth. Consequently, mortality from abiotic and biotic stresses may be high in some areas. Limber pine is highly susceptible to white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola) and the pine needle pathogen (Dothistroma septospora). It can also be heavily infected or killed by limber pine dwarf-mistletoe (Arceuthobium cyanocarpum), and is susceptible to infestation by mountain pine beetles, cone beetles, coneworms, and budworms. The most significant damage due to biotic factors appears to occur at locations on the Lewis and ClarkNational Forest along the northern Rocky Mountain Front, the Gravelly range and sections of the Yellowstone ecosystem in southwestern Montana. Large numbers of trees have very thin crowns and poor terminal growth, and severe mortality is occurring in some areas.

Under natural conditions, Rocky Mountain juniper seedlings become established on moist sites in partial shade (Burns and Honkala 1990). Stands found in southwestern Montana may exhibit a savanna-like character due to the inability of Rocky Mountain juniper to establish on drier micro-sites. Rocky Mountain juniper is generally shallow rooted, and forest health can be negatively affected by heavy grazing, especially on exposed sites with erodible soils. Several insect pests that attack Rocky Mountain juniper, and mistletoes (Phoradendron species), a blight caused by Cercospora sequoiae, and cedar apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniper virgiananae) can be especially problematic (Burns and Honkala 1990).

In the absence of natural fire, periodic prescribed burns can be implemented during late fall months to maintain and enhance limber pine regeneration ,although results may be variable due to insufficient ground fuels typical of this system. Fire can kill young trees of limber pine and Rocky Mountain Juniper because of their thin bark.

Restoration Considerations

Reintroduction of prescribed fire fosters limber pine restoration, because it provides open sites on exposed mineral soils that are suitable for Clark's nutcracker to cache seeds and for seedlings to establish. Augmenting natural regeneration with seed sources that exhibit some resistance to blister rust or, in some cases, with nursery stock, will be necessary in areas where seed sources are absent or greatly reduced. Direct seeding may be the most practical restoration method on most sites. Germination of fresh seed will take place during the first growing season after fall caching or direct seeding.

Because this system is characterized by shallow soils, outplanting of nursery stock would be limited to microsites with deeper soil pockets. Outplanted seedling survival has been shown to be higher when seedlings are planted on microsites with some cover and when seedlings are planted in clumps rather than singly. Seedling health was marginally better in burned areas than unburned areas within an experimental area in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta (Asebrook and others, 2008).

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 (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. 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 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. 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 associated as using 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 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.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the 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 assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    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: 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.

    Literature Cited
    • 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.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • 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.

Original Concept Authors
G. Jones, K. Schulz, mod. G. Kittel (NatureServe ed. date 20Apr2006)

Montana Version Authors
T. Luna, L.K. Vance, M. Hart

Version Date

  • Classification and Map Identifiers

    Cowardian Wetland Classification: Not applicable

    National Vegetation Classification Standard:
    Class Forest and Woodland
    Subclass Temperate Forest
    Formation Cool Temperate Forest
    Division Western North America Cool Temperate Forest
    Macrogroup Northern Rocky Mountain Lower Montane and Foothill Forest

    NatureServe Identifiers:
    Element Global ID
    System Code CES306.955, Rocky Mountain Foothill Limber Pine - Juniper Woodland

    National Land Cover Dataset:
    42: Evergreen Forest

    4236: Rocky Mountain Foothill Limber Pine - Juniper Woodland

  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View WorldCat Record   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Asebrook, J.M. 2006. Revegetation Monitoring Reports: Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: Research Reports, Glacier National Park.
    • Burns, R. M., and B. H. Honkala, technical coordinators. 1990a. Silvics of North America: Volume 1. Conifers. USDA Forest Service. Agriculture Handbook 654. Washington, DC. 675 pp.
    • Cooper, S. V., C. Jean, and B. L. Heidel. 1999. Plant associations and related botanical inventory of the Beaverhead Mountains Section, Montana. Unpublished report to the Bureau of Land Management. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena. 235 pp.
    • 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.

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Citation for data on this website:
Rocky Mountain Foothill Limber Pine - Juniper Woodland.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on April 18, 2014, from
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