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Montana Field Guides

Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine Woodland and Savanna

Provisional State Rank: S4

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General Description

This system occurs on warm, dry, exposed sites in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in west-central and central Montana, at the ecotone between grasslands or shrublands and more mesic coniferous forests. Elevations range from 1,066 to 1,676 meters (3,500-5,500 feet), with higher elevation examples mostly confined to central Montana. Occurrences are found on all slopes and aspects; however, moderately steep to very steep slopes or ridgetops are most common. True savanna types are infrequent; the system is more characteristically an open forest with a grassy understory. In the western part of the state, this system is seen mostly on dry slopes in the rainshadow of the Bitterroot Mountains. East of the Continental Divide, it is most widespread around Helena and Lewistown, although it occurs throughout mountain ranges as far east as the Little Rocky and Bearpaw Mountains. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) is the dominant conifer. Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and western larch (Larix occidentalis) may be present in the tree canopy in the more western areas, but are usually absent. In central Montana, limber pine (Pinus flexilis) and horizontal juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) are frequently components. Although the understory of ponderosa pine forests is often shrubby in other states, in Montana, habitats are mostly dominated by graminoids, although bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), white snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), and skunkrush (Rhus trilobata) occur in forests on benchlands and rocky slopes in the central portion of the state. Understory vegetation is more typically grasses and forbs that resprout following low to moderate intensity surface fires. Prolonged drought, beetle kill and exotic invasion are rapidly changing the dynamics of this system.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Ponderosa pine with grass or shrub understory, tree cover from 10 to 50%, shallow, aridic soils with sandy texture, A soil horizon less than 10 cm, intermediate to polycyclic disturbance intervals

Similar Systems

In the western part of the state, this system is seen mostly on dry slopes in the rainshadow of the Bitterroot Mountains. East of the Continental Divide, it is most widespread around Helena and Lewistown, although it occurs throughout mountain ranges as far east as the Little Rocky and Bearpaw Mountains.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 2,169 square kilometers are classified as Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine Woodland and Savanna in the 2017 Montana Land Cover layers.  Grid on map is based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map boundaries.

Montana Counties of Occurrence
Blaine, Broadwater, Carbon, Cascade, Chouteau, Deer Lodge, Fergus, Flathead, Gallatin, Golden Valley, Granite, Hill, Jefferson, Judith Basin, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Meagher, Mineral, Missoula, Musselshell, Park, Phillips, Powell, Ravalli, Sanders, Silver Bow, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Teton, Wheatland

Spatial Pattern


In western and central Montana, this ecosystem forms a belt on warm, dry, exposed sites between grasslands and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forests. Elevations range from 1,066 to 1,676 meters (3,500-5,500 feet) (Pfister et al, 1977). This system can occur at higher elevations in central Montana. It is generally found on gravelly soils with good aeration and drainage and a neutral to slightly acidic pH.


Ponderosa pine is the dominant conifer. Douglas-fir and western larch may be present in the tree canopy in the more western areas, but are usually absent. In central Montana, limber pineand horizontal juniperare often components. Although the understory for ponderosa pine forests is often shrubby in other states, in Montana, habitats are mostly dominated by grasses, although antelope bitterbrush, snowberry, serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), common juniper (Juniperus communis) and skunkbush occur in forests on benchlands and rocky slopes in the central portion of the state. Understory vegetation is more typically fire-resistant grasses and forbs that resprout following surface fires. High shrub cover, understory trees, and downed logs are uncommon. These more open stands support grasses such as bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), which is usually dominant, prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) and needle and thread (Hesperostipa comata), as well as dryland sedges likethreadleaf sedge (Carex filifolia) and sun sedge (Carex inops ssp. heliophila). On more mesic sites,bluebunch wheatgrass occurs as the dominant graminoid species with Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) and rough fescue (Festuca campestris). In central Montana, soapweed yucca (Yucca glauca), Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica), grama (Bouteloua spp.) and bluestem (Andropogon spp.) occur on especially dry sites. Common herbaceous forbs include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), pink pussytoes (Antennaria rosea), arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), Indian blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata), and silky lupine (Lupinus sericeus).

National Vegetation Classification Switch to Full NVC View

Adapted from US National Vegetation Classification

A3207 Artemisia tridentata ssp. spiciformis - Artemisia tridentata ssp. Vaseyana Steppe & Shrubland Alliance
A3395 Pseudotsuga menziesii - Pinus ponderosa / Herbaceous Understory Central Rocky Mountain Woodland Alliance
CEGL000900 Pseudotsuga menziesii - Festuca idahoensis Woodland
CEGL000901 Pseudotsuga menziesii - Festuca campestris Woodland
CEGL000908 Pseudotsuga menziesii - Pseudoroegneria spicata Woodland
A3446 Pinus ponderosa / Shrub Understory Central Rocky Mountain Woodland Alliance
CEGL000189 Pinus ponderosa - Physocarpus malvaceus Forest
CEGL000195 Pinus ponderosa - Purshia tridentata - Festuca idahoensis Woodland
CEGL000197 Pinus ponderosa - Purshia tridentata - Pseudoroegneria spicata Woodland
CEGL000203 Pinus ponderosa - Symphoricarpos albus Forest
CEGL005841 Pinus ponderosa - Vaccinium caespitosum Woodland
A3447 Pinus ponderosa / Herbaceous Understory Central Rocky Mountain Open Woodland Alliance
CEGL000857 Pinus ponderosa - Festuca idahoensis Woodland
CEGL000865 Pinus ponderosa - Pseudoroegneria spicata Woodland
A3464 Pinus ponderosa Dry-Mesic Black Hills Forest & Woodland Alliance
CEGL000187 Pinus ponderosa - Mahonia repens Forest
CEGL000859 Pinus ponderosa - Juniperus communis 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

Under natural conditions, ponderosa pine woodlands and grasslands are maintained by frequent surface fires (Arno, 1980), and in western Montana low-severity fires occur at mean return intervals of 15 to 23 years (Smith and Fischer, 1997). Fires in this system generally occur in the early spring or late fall when conditions are wet or when trees are dormant, increasing their fire resistance (Habeck, 1992). In comparison to the Great Plains Ponderosa Pine Woodland and Savanna system in central and eastern Montana, this system experiences a larger percentage of mixed-severity fires (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012). The threat of stand-replacing fires is high in areas where periodic fire has been suppressed. A study at the Sawmill Resource Natural Area in the Bitterroot National Forest found an average fire return interval of 13 years prior to the initiation of systematic fire suppression policies. The thick bark and open crown structure of ponderosa pines allows them to withstand fire, a necessity in this system to control competition and allow for successful regeneration. In the absence of fire, forest density increases, and fire-intolerant species like Douglas-fir become more common (Gayton et al., 2006). Increased forest density also leads to increased incidence of high severity fires and greater susceptibility to insect attack (Jenkins et al., 2014; Habeck, 1992).

Many biotic disturbances affect this system. Seedlings and saplings can be deformed by shoot borers (Eucosma sonomana) and tip moths (Rhyacionia bushnelli), and defoliation can occur as a result of insects like the pine butterfly (Neophasia menapia). The insects that cause the most extensive mortality in this system are of the genus Dendroctonus, and include the western pine beetle (Dendroctonus brevicomis) and the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) (Graham and Jain, 2005; Habeck, 1992). Bark beetles generally occur at endemic levels in this system. However, in recent years, prolonged summer drought, milder winters, and exclusion of low severity fires resulting in increased stand density have contributed to greater susceptibility to and increasing severity of bark beetle outbreaks (Kolb et al., 2007). Fire may also decrease tree defenses to beetle attack immediately post-fire, resulting in increased vulnerability to insect attack (Davis et al., 2012). Additionally, pathogens like dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium campylopodum) influence ponderosa pine growth rates and interact with the effects of beetle attacks to increase downed woody surface fuels (Klutsch et al., 2014). Ponderosa pine mortality is high in many areas of Montana, especially in the west-central area of the state. Increased incidence of beetle outbreaks in ponderosa pine stands can have ecosystem-level effects including 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).

Grazing by domestic livestock may reduce bunchgrasses, and in cases of intensive overgrazing, cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) may be dominant in the understory. Disturbances including wind, snow, and ice result in decreased stand density and provide canopy openings that allow for regeneration (Graham and Jain, 2005).


In the absence of natural fire, periodic prescribed burning in late fall, selective thinning, and reduction of ladder and basal fuels to prevent crown fires can be used to maintain and restore this system to similar pre-settlement conditions. Habeck (1992) suggests prescribed burning at intervals of 20 to 25 years to maintain ponderosa pine dominance and nutrient cycling within this system. Prescribed burning may increase long-term mortality of old growth ponderosa pine, particularly when combined with increased drought stress (Kolb et al., 2007). Thinning of understory trees and removal of ladder fuels and accumulated organic matter from the base of large trees may be necessary to protect old growth from mortality during prescribed burns (Kolb et al., 2007). Mechanical thinning has the added benefit of decreasing stand susceptibility to mountain pine beetle attack and dwarf mistletoe as outbreaks are generally associated with high stand densities (Jenkins et al., 2014; Klutsch et al., 2014).

Periodic burning is used to expose mineral soils, provide nutrient availability, reduce competition, stimulate native grass and forb production, increase basal diameter growth of overstory ponderosa pine, and provide favorable seedbeds. Management actions that increase basal diameter growth may also favor resistance to bark beetle attacks (Kolb et al., 2007). In some cases, especially on sites heavily infested with cheatgrass, frequent prescribed burning may stimulate greater cheatgrass cover following fire, especially if the burn does not eliminate the seed bank. Increasing time between prescribed fires may inhibit cheatgrass by increasing surface fuels (both herbaceous and litter) which directly inhibit establishment. Postfire cheatgrass dominance has been shown to be most strongly controlled by the pre-fire seed bank, soil moisture, fire intensity, soil nitrogen, and duration of direct sunlight (Keeley and McGinnis 2007). Excessive grazing can lead to the loss of the most common perennial grasses and increased abundance of exotic grasses. Cheatgrass establishment in low-elevation ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forests can be enhanced by disturbance that opens the understory, removes litter, or both (Mack and Pyke 1983). Prolific seed production also contributes to the competitive advantage of this grass over native grasses and associated perennial forbs.

Restoration Considerations

Post-fire restoration strategies will depend largely on fire severity. Because fire creates favorable seedbeds for seedling establishment, lightly burned areas recover quite quickly from fire and restoration practices are generally not necessary. In cases where severe, stand-replacing fires have occurred, reseeding or replanting efforts may be necessary. When supplemental seeding or planting is necessitated, germination and seedling survival are enhanced by a period of cold stratification and relatively moist conditions (Habeck, 1992). To ensure successful establishment, repeated browsing by deer or trampling by livestock should be minimized (Habeck, 1992).

Wildfire severity and frequency are expected to increase in this system threatening old growth ponderosa pine stands that historically experienced frequent low-severity fires. In the absence of natural fire, restoration treatments such as mechanical thinning or prescribed burning reduce fuels that accumulate in the understory leading to high intensity, stand replacing fires. Additional benefits of thinning include a reduction of competition stress on old trees, which may in turn reduce mortality associated with drought and mountain pine beetles (Jenkins et al., 2014; Kolb et al., 2007).

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
M.S. Reid, mod. C. Chappell and R. Crawford

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

Version Date

  • Classification and Map Identifiers

    Cowardin Wetland Classification: Not applicable

    NatureServe Identifiers:
    Element Global ID 28445
    System Code CES306.030, Northern Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine Woodland and Savanna

    National Land Cover Dataset:
    42: Evergreen Forest

    4240: Northern Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine Woodland and Savanna

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • 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.
    • Davis, R.S., S. Hood, and B.J. Bentz. 2012. Fire-injured ponderosa pine provide a pulsed resource for bark beetles. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 42:2022-2036.
    • Graham, R.T. and T.B. Jain. 2005. Ponderosa pine ecosystems. pp. 1-32. In: Proceedings of the Symposium on Ponderosa Pine: Issues, Trends, and Management, Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-198. Albany CA: Pacific Southwest Research Station, Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture, Klamath Falls, OR.
    • Habeck, R.J. 1992. Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa. In: Fire Effects Information System. Missoula, MT: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. 1 p.
    • 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.
    • Jenkins, M.J., J.B. Runyon, C.J. Fettig, W.G. Page, and B.J. Bentz. 2014. Interactions among the mountain pine beetle, fires, and fuels. Forest Science 60:489-501.
    • 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.
    • Klutsch, J.G., R.D. Beam, W.R. Jacobi, and J.F. Negrón. 2014. Bark beetles and dwarf mistletoe interact to alter downed woody material, canopy structure, and stand characteristics in northern Colorado ponderosa pine. Forest Ecology and Management 315:63-71.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Smith, J. K. and W. C. Fischer. 1997. Fire ecology of the forest habitat types of northern Idaho. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-GTR-363. USDA Forest Service, Ogden, UT.
    • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. 2012. Information from LANDFIRE on Fire Regimes of Northern Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine Communities. In: Fire Effects Information System. Missoula, MT: USDA Forest Servic
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Aguirre, Lucrecia, and Douglas A. Johnson. 1991. "Influence of Temperature and Cheatgrass Competition on Seedling Development of Two Bunchgrasses". Journal of Range Management. 44 (4): 347-354.
    • Arno, S. F. 1980. Forest fire history in the northern Rockies. Journal of Forestry 78(8):460-465.
    • Gayton DV, Weber MH, Harrington M, Heyerdahl DK, Sutherland BB, Hall C, Hartman M, Peterson L, Merrel C. 2006. Fire history of a western Montana ponderosa pine grassland: A pilot study. In: Speer JH, editor. Experiential learning and exploratory research: The 13th annual North American dendroecological fieldweek (NADEF). Prof. Paper Ser. No. 23. Terre Haute, IN: Department of Geography, Geology, and Anthropology, Indiana State University; p 30-6.
    • Keeley, J. E., and T. W. Mcginnis. 2007. "Impact of Prescribed Fire and Other Factors on Cheatgrass Persistence in a Sierra Nevada Ponderosa Pine Forest". International Journal of Wildland Fire. 16 (1): 96-106.
    • Mack, Richard N., and David A. Pyke. 1983. "The Demography of Bromus Tectorum: Variation in Time and Space". The Journal of Ecology. 71 (1): 69-93.
    • 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 Ponderosa Pine Woodland and Savanna — Northern Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine Woodland and Savanna.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on , from