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Alpine Turf

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Provisional State Rank:
* (see reason below)

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State Rank Reason
This system may experience a decline as disappearance of perennial snow restricts moisture.
 

General Description

In Montana, this system occurs above upper treeline throughout the Montana Rocky Mountain ranges, and east into the mountain island ranges. Elevation ranges from as low as 6,600 ft in northwestern to 10,500 feet in southwestern Montana. Turf communities form on gentle to moderate upper slopes, flat ridges, valleys, basins, and gentle summit ridges where soil has become relatively stabilized and the water supply persists until fall. At these elevations, the growing season typically ranges from 60 to 90 days. During the growing season, these areas are subjected to windy conditions and widely variable diurnal temperatures. Freezing temperatures and snow can occur throughout the summer months. Turf communities are composed of a diversity of rhizomatous sedges, rushes, woodrushes, grasses and forbs that form a dense turf that is rarely greater than 12 cm (5 inches) tall. Depending on slope protection, soil development, snow depth, turf communities can range from dry to mesic expressions.

Throughout Montana, alpine turf supports a high diversity of sedges, grasses and forbs. Common graminoid species include alpine bluegrass (Poa alpina), alpine timothy (Phleum alpinum), alpine fescue (Festuca brachyphylla), and a highly diverse assemblage of sedges including northern singlespike sedge (Carex scirpoidea), curly sedge(C. rupestris), blackroot sedge (Carex elynoides ), obtuse sedge (Carex obtusata), dunhead sedge (Carex phaeocephala), Hayden’s sedge (Carex haydeniana), spiked woodrush (Luzula spicata), and Piper’s woodrush (Luzula piperi). Alpine forbs can often form nearly half the cover in turf communities and can include diverse leaf cinquefoil (Potentilla diversifolia), alpine goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata), moss campion (Silene acaulis), Parrot’s beak lousewort (Pedicularis contorta), arnica (Arnica species), alpine pussytoes (Antennariaspecies), subalpine wandering daisy (Erigeron peregrinus), sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens), glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum), and rhexi-leaf paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia),among many others. Woody, mat forming species such as arctic willow (Salix arctica) and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) can contribute significant cover in many examples of turf communities. Due to the very slow rate of community development, short growing season, and limited soil development, alpine turf cannot support heavy levels of disturbance such as repeated grazing, land disturbance and heavy foot traffic. Recovery of these communities occurs over many decades. Climatic warming and decreasing snowpack levels will alter the floristic composition and the distribution of peripheral species, northern Rocky Mountain endemics and rare species that occur within it.


Similar Systems

Range
This system occurs above upper treeline throughout the North American Rocky Mountain cordillera, including alpine areas of ranges in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada, and isolated alpine sites in the northeastern Cascades. In Montana, this system occurs above upper treeline throughout the Montana Rocky Mountain ranges, and east into the mountain island ranges. Snow pack is higher in alpine basins whereas ridges and summits can be blown free of snow due to high winds and sublimation.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 1,191 square kilometers are classified as Alpine Turf in the 2013 Montana Land Cover layers.  Grid on map is based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map boundaries.



Montana Counties of Occurrence
BEAVERHEAD, CARBON, DEER LODGE, FLATHEAD, GALLATIN, GLACIER, GRANITE, LEWIS AND CLARK, LINCOLN, MADISON, MINERAL, MISSOULA, PARK, POWELL, RAVALLI, SANDERS, STILLWATER, SWEET GRASS, TETON

Spatial Pattern
Large patch

Environment
In Montana, alpine turf communities are well represented throughout the Northern Rocky Mountains and island mountain ranges. Elevation ranges from as low as 6,600 ft in northwestern Montana to 10,500 feet in southwestern Montana. Turf communities form on gentle to moderate upper slopes, flat ridges, valleys, basins, and gentle summit ridges where soil has become relatively stabilized and the water supply persists until fall. At these elevations, the growing season typically ranges from 60 to 90 days. During the growing season, these areas are subjected to windy conditions and widely variable diurnal temperatures. Freezing temperatures and snow can occur throughout the summer months. During winter months, turf communities are subjected to very cold temperatures, high winds, and heavy accumulations of snow. Snow pack accumulation is dependent on topography. Snow pack is higher in alpine basins whereas ridges and summits can be blown free of snow due to high winds and sublimation. In Montana, soils are derived a variety of parent materials, and can be acidic or calcareous. The A horizon is typically less than 10 cm deep. Soils are typically rocky or gravelly with good aeration and drainage.

Vegetation

Turf communities are composed of a diversity of rhizomatous sedges, rushes, woodrushes, grasses and forbs that form a dense turf that is rarely greater than 12 cm (5 inches) tall. Depending on slope protection, soil development, snow depth, turf communities can range from dry to mesic. In northwestern Montana, dry turf communities are dominated by graminoids. Common species include alpine bluegrass (Poa alpina), alpine timothy (Phleum alpinum), alpine fescue (Festuca brachyphylla), dunhead sedge (Carex phaeocephala), spiked woodrush (Luzula spicata), Piper’s woodrush (Luzula piperi), and Hayden’s sedge (Carex haydeniana).

Alpine forb cover is usually less than 40% in the drier expression of alpine turf communities. Common species include forbs include diverse leaf cinquefoil (Potentilla diversifolia), alpine goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata), moss campion (Silene acaulis), Parrot’s beak lousewort (Pedicularis contorta), arnica (Arnica species), Eschscholtz’s buttercup (Ranunculus eschscholtzii). Woody, mat forming arctic willow (Salix arctica) often forms high cover in dry turf communities. In more well developed turf communities, forb diversity increase and can reach greater than 40% percent cover. Additional species include arnica (Arnica species), alpine pussytoes (Antennaria species), subalpine wandering daisy (Erigeron peregrinus), one-stem fleabane (Erigeron simplex), sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens), glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum), rhexi-leaf paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia), western anemone (Anemone occidentalis), alpine Saint John’s wort (Hypericum formosum), elegant death camas (Zigadenus elegans), alpine bistort (Polygonum bistortoides), and viviparous bistort (Polygonum viviparum). Higher levels of organic matter contribute to greater graminoid diversity including purple mountain hairgrass (Deschampsia atropurpurea) and beautiful sedge (Carex spectabilis).

In northwestern Montana, the more mesic expressions of turf communities form on gentle slopes and basins where subirrigation from permanent snow fields and higher levels of organic matter accumulation occur in the soils. Although infrequent, they support additional species including single spike sedge (Carex scirpoidea), curly sedge (Carex ruprestris), hair sedge (Carex capillaris) and Payson’s sedge (Carex paysonis).

In southwestern Montana, the graminoid component of turf includes dunhead sedge, Hayden’s sedge, showy sedge, single spike sedge, spiked woodrush, black and white sedge(Carex albo-nigra), two-tipped sedge (Carex lachenalii), spike sedge (Carex nardina), and Drummond’s rush (Juncus drummondii). Grasses such as alpine blue grass, alpine timothy, alpine fescue, and spike trisetum (Trisetum spicatum) constitute the rest of the graminoid layer. Other common species include blackroot sedge, curly sedge, Parry’s rush (Juncus parryi), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoenisis), spike fescue (Festuca kingii), and purple reedgrass (Calamagrostis purpurascens) (Cooper et al., 1999).

Southwestern Montana alpine turf communities include additional forb species more common in the middle Rocky Mountain region. Species include alpine forget-me-not (Eritrichium nanum), Ross avens (Geum rossii), common alp lily (Lloydia serotina), and sheep cinquefoil (Potentilla ovina). Fern allies such as lesser spike moss (Selaginella densa) can be common. Moss and lichen cover is typically very low within well developed turf, but is higher in areas with the stoniest soils adjacent to fell fields and scree slopes with late persisting snowfields. Mat forming, woody species such as arctic willow, arctic dryad, snow willow (Salix nivalis), and within the island mountain ranges, bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) are usually present within the turf.

Throughout its range in Montana, this system intergrades with scree and talus and alpine fell field communities in areas with decreasing levels of soil development. Turf development can still be evident but is discontinuous due to high rock content and very shallow soil development. In these areas, the turf community intergrades with fellfield species and early colonizers such as arctic dryad (Dryas octopetala), yellow sweetvetch (Hedysarum sulphurescens), shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), silver lupine (Lupinus argenteus), crazyweed (Oxytropis species) and milkvetch (Astragalus species). These nitrogen-fixing species accumulate litter within the mats, thus facilitating additional species colonization from the adjacent turf community. Species within the stoniest soils typically include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), penstemon (Penstemon species), phacelia (Phacelia species), alpine fireweed (Chamerion latifolium), explorer’s gentian (Gentiana calycosa), twinflower sandwort (Minuartia obtusiloba), moss campion,alpine goldenrod and aster (Symphyotrichum species). Many of the cushion species are very long lived, well adapted to limited available water during growth and possess a deep, fleshy taproot. These species will persist for decades within the turf as it develops. Early successional graminoids in these areas include Dunhead sedge, Hayden’s sedge, Drummond’s rush, alpine bluegrass, slender wheatgrass, Sandberg’s bluegrass, and spike trisetum. These same species frequently colonize disturbed areas within the turf community such as grizzly bear diggings and ground squirrel burrows.

Imbedded within this system is a mosaic of alpine plant communities that vary in composition depending on soil development, snow retention, subterranean hydrology and localized topography. Snow bed communities dominated by ericaceous dwarf shrubs and willows often occur in as well as alpine wet meadows dominated by tufted hairgrass (Deschampisa cespitosa).

Alpine turf communities are often bordered by subalpine forest krummolz mats and the upper elevational limit of subalpine forests. The most common forest association in Montana is whitebark pine-subalpine fir (Pinus albicaulis-Abies lasiocarpa).In scattered locations on north and east facing aspects, turf communities are bordered by alpine larch(Larix lyallii)forests.


Alliances and Associations
Alliances
  • (A.1302) (Ebony Sedge, Hayden's Sedge) Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1630) Alpine Stitchwort Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1303) Blackroot Sedge Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1265) Bluebunch Wheatgrass Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1635) Creeping Glow-wort Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1307) Curly Sedge Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1577) Eight-petal Mountain-avens Dwarf-shrub Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1079) Kinnikinnick or Bearberry Dwarf-shrubland Alliance
  • (A.1308) Northern Single-spike Sedge Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1301) Purple Reedgrass Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1645) Ross' Avens Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1321) Shortleaf Fescue Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1323) Spike Fescue Herbaceous Alliance
  • (A.1256) Thurber's Fescue Herbaceous Alliance

Dynamic Processes
Historically, stand-replacing fires occurred infrequently in adjacent associated subalpine woodlands (Arno 1980). Lightning strikes can cause fire within these systems, although severity and spread is usually limited and variable. Major disturbances in this system include high elevation mining, heavy recreational use, and grazing. Changing climatic patterns will impact this system and the distribution of peripheral species, northern Rocky Mountain endemics and rare species that occur within it.

Management
Due to the very slow rate of community development, short growing season, and limited soil development, alpine turf cannot support heavy levels of disturbance such as repeated grazing, land disturbance and heavy foot traffic.

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 bmaxell@mt.gov 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: 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.

    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
Natureserve Western Ecology Group

Montana Version Authors
L. Vance, T. Luna

References
  • Classification and Map Identifiers

    Cowardian Wetland Classification: Not applicable

    National Vegetation Classification Standard: Not applicable
    NatureServe Identifiers:
    Element Global ID
    System Code CES306.816, Rocky Mountain Alpine Turf

    ReGAP:
    7117: Rocky Mountain Alpine Turf



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Citation for data on this website:
Alpine Turf — Rocky Mountain Alpine Turf.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on July 28, 2014, from http://FieldGuide.mt.gov/displayES_Detail.aspx?ES=7117
 
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