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Montana Field Guides

Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine Forest

Provisional State Rank: S3

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General Description

This forested system is widespread in upper montane to subalpine zones of the Montana Rocky Mountains, and east into island ranges of north-central Montana and the Bighorn and Beartooth ranges of south-central Montana. These are montane to subalpine forests where the dominance of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) is related to fire history and topoedaphic conditions. In Montana, elevation ranges from 975 to 2,743 meters (3,200-9000 feet). These forests occur on flats to slopes of all degrees and aspect, as well as valley bottoms. Fire is frequent, and stand-replacing fires are common. Following stand-replacing fires, lodgepole pine will rapidly colonize and develop into dense, even-aged stands. Most forests in this ecological system occur as early- to mid-successional forests persisting for 50-200 years on warmer, lower elevation forests, and 150-400 years in subalpine forests. They generally occur on dry to intermediate sites with a wide seasonal range of temperatures and long precipitation-free periods in summer. Snowfall is heavy and supplies the major source of soil water used for growth in early summer. Vigorous stands occur where the precipitation exceeds 533 millimeters (21 inches). These lodgepole forests are typically associated with rock types weathering to acidic substrates, such as granite and rhyolite. In west-central Montana ranges such the Big Belts and the Rocky Mountain Front, these forests are found on limestone substrates. These systems are especially well developed on the broad ridges and high valleys near and east of the Continental Divide. Succession proceeds at different rates, moving relatively quickly on low-elevation, mesic sites and particularly slowly in high-elevation forests such as those along the Continental Divide in Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics

Forest and woodland, acidic, shallow ustic soils, organic A horizon greater than 10 cm, Pinus contorta

Similar Systems

This system occurs throughout the Montana Rocky Mountains and the island ranges from valley bottoms west of the Continental Divide to upper subalpine forests.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 10,223 square kilometers are classified as Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine Forest in the 2017 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, Broadwater, Carbon, Cascade, Chouteau, Deer Lodge, Fergus, Flathead, Gallatin, Glacier, Golden Valley, Granite, Jefferson, Judith Basin, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Madison, Meagher, Mineral, Missoula, Park, Phillips, Pondera, Powell, Ravalli, Sanders, Silver Bow, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Teton, Wheatland

Spatial Pattern

This system generally occurs on dry to intermediate sites with a wide seasonal range of temperatures and long precipitation-free periods in summer. Snowfall is heavy and supplies the major source of soil water used for growth in early summer. Vigorous stands occur where the precipitation exceeds 533 millimeters (21 inches). These lodgepole forests are typically associated with rock types weathering to acidic substrates, such as granite and rhyolite. In west-central Montana ranges such the Big Belts and the Rocky Mountain Front, these forests are found on limestone substrates. These forests are especially well developed on the broad ridges and high valleys near and east of the Continental Divide. Succession proceeds at different rates, moving relatively quickly on low-elevation, mesic sites and particularly slowly in high-elevation forests such as those along the Continental Divide in Montana.


These forests are dominated by lodgepole pine with shrub, grass, or barren understories. At montane elevations east of the Continental Divide, lodgepole pine stands succeed to Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forests. In western Montana, there are a number of commonly occurring tree species in later seral stages, including Douglas-fir, western larch (Larix occidentalis), western white pine (Pinus monticola), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), grand fir (Abies grandis) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). In the subalpine zone, Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) commonly succeed lodgepole pine following stand mortality (Pfister et al.,1977). In the productive habitats of western Montana, lodgepole pine stands often decline in a wave of mortality, usually before they are 120 years old.

The shrub stratum may be conspicuous to absent. Common species include bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), snowbrush ceanothus (Ceanothus velutinus), twinflower (Linnaea borealis), creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens), antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), birch leaf spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia),Canadian buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis), dwarf huckleberry (Vaccinium caespitosum), grouse whortleberry (Vaccinium scoparium), mountain huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum), snowberry (Symphoricarpos species) and currant (Ribes species).

Herbaceous layers are generally sparse, but can be moderately dense, and are typically dominated by perennial graminoids such as Columbia needlegrass (Achnatherum nelsonii), pinegrass (Calamagrostis rubescens), Geyer’s sedge (Carex geyeri), Ross’ sedge (Carex rossii), California oatgrass (Danthonia californica), blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus), and Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis). Common forbs include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), arnica (Arnica spp.), American pathfinder (Adenocaulon bicolor), queen’s cup beadlily (Clintonia uniflora), silky lupine (Lupinus sericeus) and beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax). Saprophytic species such as coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza spp.), Indian pipe (Moneses uniflora), pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys), and pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) are often associated with lodgepole pine forests.

National Vegetation Classification Switch to Full NVC View

Adapted from US National Vegetation Classification

A3366 Pinus contorta Rocky Mountain Forest Alliance
CEGL000135 Pinus contorta - Arnica cordifolia Forest
CEGL000141 Pinus contorta - Carex geyeri Forest
CEGL000145 Pinus contorta - Ceanothus velutinus Forest
CEGL000153 Pinus contorta - Linnaea borealis Forest
CEGL000163 Pinus contorta - Shepherdia canadensis Forest
CEGL000164 Pinus contorta - Spiraea betulifolia Forest
CEGL000168 Pinus contorta - Vaccinium caespitosum Forest
CEGL000169 Pinus contorta - Vaccinium membranaceum Rocky Mountain Forest
CEGL000172 Pinus contorta - Vaccinium scoparium Forest
CEGL000174 Pinus contorta - Vaccinium scoparium - Calamagrostis rubescens Forest
CEGL000175 Pinus contorta - Xerophyllum tenax Forest
CEGL005913 Pinus contorta - Vaccinium membranaceum - Xerophyllum tenax Forest
CEGL005916 Pinus contorta - Clintonia uniflora Forest
CEGL005922 Pinus contorta - Menziesia ferruginea - Clintonia uniflora Forest
CEGL005923 Pinus contorta - Vaccinium caespitosum - Clintonia uniflora Forest
CEGL005924 Pinus contorta - Vaccinium scoparium - Xerophyllum tenax Forest
CEGL005928 Pinus contorta - Menziesia ferruginea Forest
A3948 Valeriana sitchensis - Luzula glabrata var. hitchcockii - Xerophyllum tenax Subalpine Mesic Meadow Alliance
CEGL005856 Chamerion angustifolium Rocky Mountain Meadow
A4079 Pinus contorta Rocky Mountain Woodland Alliance
CEGL005915 Pinus contorta - Heracleum maximum Woodland
CEGL005921 Pinus contorta - Clintonia uniflora / Xerophyllum tenax Woodland
*Disclaimer: Alliances and Associations have not yet been finalized in the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) standard.  A complete version of the NVC for Montana can be found here.

Dynamic Processes

Lodgepole pine is an aggressive colonizer and shade-intolerant conifer that occurs in the upper montane to lower subalpine forests throughout the major mountain ranges of Montana. Establishment is episodic and linked to stand-replacing disturbances, primarily fire. Historically, fire frequency varied between 50 and 300 years, depending on local climate and elevation, with fire frequency declining with increasing elevation (Schoenagel et al., 2003). In the Northern Rockies, severe fires have created large expanses of even-aged stands of lodgepole pine, although more frequent low- to mixed-severity burns may also occur in the intervals between stand-replacing fires, generating a matrix of mixed-age stands (Hardy et al., 2000; Arno et al., 1993). Occasionally, fire severity may be such that cones are destroyed and regeneration will rely on wind-dispersed seeds from nearby stands, resulting in slower regrowth (Anderson, 2003). Repeated fires allow lodgepole pine to persist as the climax species in this system by eliminating the potential for succession by more shade-tolerant species (Pfister et al., 1977).

Trees with closed, serotinous cones where seed release is a response to an environmental trigger, require high temperatures to release seeds and appear to be strongly favored by fire, allowing rapid colonization of fire-cleared substrates (Burns and Honkala, 1990). The incidence of serotinous cones varies within and between varieties of lodgepole pine, but within Rocky Mountain populations, serotiny varies both across regions and with stand age (Schoenagel et al., 2003). Stands that occur at lower elevations where fire return intervals are shorter exhibit greater serotiny, whereas higher elevation stands with greater fire return intervals favor non-serotinous cones which are more advantageous for successful regeneration (Schoenagel et al., 2003). Lodgepole pine stands exhibiting a multi-aged population structure also exhibit a higher proportion of trees bearing non-serotinous cones. Even-aged stands that establish after stand-replacing fires exhibit greater serotiny than those that establish after wind or insect disturbances (Anderson, 2003).

In fire-generated stands of similar age, trees become increasingly susceptible to both mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum) infestations as they mature, often resulting in large-scale mortality. In general, pine beetles preferentially attack large individuals with greater nutritional resources (Cole and Amman, 1969). In this system, large scale, stand-replacing fires have occurred frequently throughout Montana during the past 20 years, increasing stand homogeneity favorable to beetle attack. Elevated temperatures and increasing drought severity additionally combine to favor beetle population growth and weaken lodgepole pine defense mechanisms, thereby increasing susceptibility to mountain pine beetle attack (Raffa et al., 2008). Interactions between biotic and abiotic disturbance agents in lodgepole pine systems are complex, and the widespread mortality associated with these disturbances alters ecosystem processes. Ecosystem-level effects of mountain pine beetle outbreaks include changes to carbon cycling (Kurz et al., 2008), hydrology (Bearup et al., 2014; Mikkelson et al., 2013), and fuel structure and flammability (Hicke et al., 2012; Jolly et al., 2012). However, at broad spatial scales it does not appear that pine beetle caused mortality increases stand susceptibility to fire (Hart et al., 2015; Simard et al., 2011). Alternatively, dwarf mistletoe increases host susceptibility to fire by altering fuel dynamics, and intensifies host vulnerability to insect attack (Hawksworth et al., 2002).

Effects of fire, fire suppression, fuel accumulation, stand development, insects, and disease in these forests interact to control the establishment and maintenance of stands. Because they are often initiated by stand-replacing fire, Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine stands are frequently even-aged. However, stands of similar age frequently differ in density, ranging from open stands of large trees to very dense, stunted "doghair" stands. In the absence of natural fire, periodic prescribed burns and selective thinning can be used to maintain this system. Thinning may, however, increase long-term stand susceptibility to mountain pine beetle attack (Fettig et al., 2006), and dense, even-aged stands may be vulnerable to windthrow as a result of thinning (Anderson 2003). Low intensity prescribed burning may increase long-term resistance to mountain pine beetle attack (Hood and Sala, 2013), although stands may be more vulnerable to attack in the short term (Kulakowski and Jarvis, 2013). Prescribed burning may also encourage dwarf mistletoe success if infected individuals are not eliminated, as dwarf mistletoe germination rates are enhanced by smoke exposure (Kipfmueller and Baker, 1997).

Restoration Considerations

Low-frequency stand-replacing fires are characteristic of this system (Stephens et al., 2013), with higher frequency low- to mixed-severity burns occurring in the intervals between high-severity fires (Hardy et al., 2000). Restoration strategies will depend largely on management goals. Low intensity prescribed burning and selective thinning may be utilized as restoration strategies to restore historic fire regimes and increase long term resistance to mountain pine beetle attack (Hood and Sala, 2013; Fettig et al., 2006). Under favorable moisture conditions, seeds released from serotinous cones during fire germinate on exposed mineral soil and disturbed duff the following spring. Fire creates a favorable seedbed by removing loose organic matter and exposing mineral soil or decomposed organic matter, which encourages germination. Therefore, in most scenarios, additional post-fire restoration practices are not required. However, regeneration success may be marginal when stand-replacing fires are followed by years of severe drought (Stephens et al., 2013) and may require supplemental restoration efforts. When supplemental planting is necessary, germination rates for seeds from serotinous cones may be enhanced by short exposure to flame (Anderson, 2003). Early successional stages following fire in lodgepole pine forests are dominated by an understory of forbs and to a lesser extent, graminoids such as fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), aster (Aster species), nettleleaf giant hyssop (Agastache urticifolia), and pinegrass (Calamagrostis rubescens).

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:
    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 2012, 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 observation 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 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: 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.  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.

Original Concept Authors
R. Crawford, M.S. Reid, G. Kittel

Montana Version Authors
L.K. Vance, T. Luna, S.V. Cooper

Version Date

  • Classification and Map Identifiers

    Cowardin Wetland Classification: Not applicable

    NatureServe Identifiers:
    Element Global ID 28656
    System Code CES306.820, Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine Forest

    National Land Cover Dataset:
    42: Evergreen Forest

    4237: Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine Forest

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • 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).
    • Arno S. F., , Forest Structure and Landscape Patterns in the Subalpine Lodgepole Pine Type: a Procedure for Unintifying Past and Present Conditions
    • Bearup, L.A., R.M. Maxwell, D.W. Clow, and J.E. McCray. 2014. Hydrological effects of forest transpiration loss in bark beetle-impacted watersheds. Nature Climate Change 4(6):481-486.
    • Cole, W.E. and G.D. Amman. 1969. Mountain pine beetle infestations in relation to lodgepole pine diameters. Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. Research Note INT-95.8 p.
    • Hardy, C.C., R.E. Keane, and C.A. Stewart. 1999. Ecosystem-based management in the lodgepole pine zone. Pp. 18-20 In: The Bitterroot Ecosystem Management Research Project: what we have learned: symposium proceedings. Missoula, MT: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. RMRS-P-17.
    • Hart, S.J., T. Schoennagel, T.T. Veblen, and T.B. Chapman. 2015. Area burned in the western United States is unaffected by recent mountain pine beetle outbreaks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112:4375-4380.
    • Hawksworth, F.G., D. Wiens, and B.W. Geils. 2002. Arceuthobium in North America. Mistletoes of North American conifers 29-56.
    • Hicke, J.A., M.C. Johnson, J.L. Hayes, and H.K. Preisler. 2012. Effects of bark beetle-caused tree mortality on wildfire. Forest Ecology and Management 271:81-90.
    • Hood, S.M. and A. Sala. 2013. Frequent, Low-Intensity Fire Increases Tree Defense To Bark Beetles. Abstract. Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. 7 p.
    • Jolly, W.M., R.A. Parsons, A.M. Hadlow, G.M. Cohn, S.S. McAllister, J.B. Popp, and J.F. Negron. 2012. Relationships between moisture, chemistry, and ignition of Pinus contorta needles during the early stages of mountain pine beetle attack. Forest Ecology and Management 269:52-59.
    • Kipfmueller, K.F. and W.L. Baker. 1998. Fires and dwarf mistletoe in a Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine ecosystem. Forest Ecology and Management 108(1):77-84.
    • Kulakowski, D. and D. Jarvis. 2013. Low-severity fires increase susceptibility of lodgepole pine to mountain pine beetle outbreaks in Colorado. Forest Ecology and Management 289:544-550.
    • Kurz, W.A., C.C. Dymond, G. Stinson, G.J. Rampley, E.T. Neilson, A.L. Carroll, and L. Safranyik. 2008. Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change. Nature 452(7190):987-990.
    • Mikkelson, K.M., L.A. Bearup, R.M. Maxwell, J D. Stednick, J.E. McCray, and J.O. Sharp. 2013. Bark beetle infestation impacts on nutrient cycling, water quality and interdependent hydrological effects. Biogeochemistry 115(1-3):1-21.
    • 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.
    • Raffa, K.F., B.H. Aukema, B.J. Bentz, A.L. Carroll, J.A. Hicke, M.G. Turner, and W.H. Romme. 2008. Cross-scale drivers of natural disturbances prone to anthropogenic amplification: the dynamics of bark beetle eruptions. Bioscience 58(6): 501-517.
    • Schoennagel, T., M. G. Turner, and W. H. Romme. 2003. The influence of fire interval and serotiny on postfire lodgepole pine density in Yellowstone National Park. Ecology 84:2967-2978.
    • Simard, M., W.H. Romme, J.M. Griffin, and M.G. Turner. 2011. Do mountain pine beetle outbreaks change the probability of active crown fire in lodgepole pine forests? Ecological Monographs 81(1):3-24.
    • Stephens, S.L., J.K. Agee, P.Z. Fulé, M.P. North, W.H. Romme, T.W. Swetnam, and M.G. Turner. 2013. Managing forests and fire in changing climates. Science 342(6154):41-42.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • 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.

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Citation for data on this website:
Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine Forest.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on , from