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Montana Field Guides

Rocky Mountain Subalpine-Upper Montane Grassland

Provisional State Rank: S5
(see reason below)

External Links

State Rank Reason
This system faces fewer threats than the lower montane, foothill and valley systems.

General Description

These lush grassland systems are found in upper montane to subalpine, high-elevation,zones, and are shaped by short summers, cold winters, and young soils derived from recent glacial and alluvial material. In subalpine settings, dry grasslands may occur as small meadows or large open parks surrounded by higher elevational forests, but typicall will have no tree cover within them. In general, soil textures are much finer, and soils are often deeper than in the neighboring forests. Most precipitation occurs as heavy snowpack in the mountains with spring and early summer rains. This system is composed of bunch grass species, with a diversity of cool season forbs. It is similar to the Rocky Mountain Lower Montane, Foothill and Valley Grassland ecological system, but is found at higher elevations and has additional floristic components with more subalpine taxa. In Montana, this system generally occurs as two plant communities: a rough fescue-Idaho fescue (Festuca campestris-Festuca idahoensis) association occurring on moister sites, such as the north and east-facing slopes and benches in the mountains; and the Idaho Fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass (Festuca idahoensis-Pseudoroegneria spicata) association occurring on drier sites, such as ridges, hilltops, and south and west facing slopes and benches. At elevations greater than 2286 meters (7,500 feet), Idaho fescue becomes dominant, sometimes associated with slender wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus), or in certain areas, tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa). Noxious species invasion, fire suppression, heavy grazing, and oil and gas development are major threats to this system.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Tussock forming grasses, montane to subalpine elevations, deep ustic soils, herbaceous cover greater than 25%, shrub cover less than 10%

Similar Systems

Subalpine and upper montane grasslands are most extensive in the Canadian Rockies portion of the Rocky Mountain cordillera, extending south into western Montana, central and eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and Idaho, and the Bighorn Range of north-central Wyoming. In Montana, they occur in the Bitterroot, Mission, and Flathead mountains of western Montana and are very extensive in southwestern ranges such as the Anaconda-Pintlar, Pioneer, Snowcrest, Gravelley, Blacktail, Centennial and Beaverhead. East of the Continental Divide, the system is well represented on high exposed ridges on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, from the Alberta border and along the eastern edge of Glacier National Park at montane to subalapine elevations (in the Belly River, Many Glacier, Saint Mary and Two Medicine valleys). It extends south along the Rocky Mountain Front to west-central Montana and south-central Montana (including the Gallatin, Madison, Absaroka, Beartooth, Pryor, and Bighorn Ranges). It also occurs in the island mountain ranges of central Montana.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 2,911 square kilometers are classified as Rocky Mountain Subalpine-Upper Montane Grassland 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, Broadwater, Carbon, Cascade, Deer Lodge, Fergus, Flathead, Gallatin, Glacier, Golden Valley, Granite, Jefferson, Judith Basin, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Madison, Meagher, Mineral, Missoula, Park, Pondera, Powell, Ravalli, Sanders, Silver Bow, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Teton, Wheatland

Spatial Pattern
Large patch


This ecological system grades into the Northern Rocky Mountain Lower Montane, Foothill and Valley Grassland ecological system at its lower elevational limit, and into Rocky Mountain Alpine Fellfield and Alpine Turf systems at its upper limit. In northwestern and west-central Montana it forms within upper elevation Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), spruce-fir (Picea engelmannii-Abies lasiocarpa) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) forests. Immediately east of the Continental Divide, it occurs on high ridges (5200 feet or higher) bordering the northwestern Great Plains and on steep mountain slopes and benches above 5200 feet along the Rocky Mountain Front to west-central Montana. Elevations represented by the northernmost extent of this system are approximately 2075-2200 meters (6,800-7, 200 feet). In southern Montana, this system is regularly found at elevations up to 2930 meters (9600 feet) with extremes at 3050 meters (10,000 feet). Sites range from small meadows to large open grasslands surrounded by high elevation forest types. Young soils are derived from recent glacial and alluvial material, but tend to be deeper than soils in adjacent forest communities or in alpine plant communities.


Rough fescue (Festuca campestris) and Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) are the dominants of this system. In Montana, this system generally occurs as two plant community associations: 1) Rough Fescue-Idaho Fescue, found on moister sites such as the north- and east-facing slopes and benches in the mountains; and 2) Idaho Fescue-Bluebunch Wheatgrass, found on drier sites such as ridges, hilltops, and south and west facing slopes and benches. At elevations greater than 2,280 m (7500 feet), Idaho fescue becomes solely dominant or is associated with slender wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus); in some areas, it may associated with tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) (Cooper et al. 1999).

On relatively pristine, moist sites, rough fescue (Festuca campestris) canopy cover can approach 70% and form a nearly continuous cover. Rough fescue is most common in northwestern Montana, although it occurs as far south and east as the Anaconda-Pinlar Ranges. Other grasses are typically interspersed with the rough fescue, especially Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) and other mesic site graminoids such as western needlegrass (Achnatherum occidentale), Richardson’s needlegrass (Achnatherum richardsonii), basin wildrye (Leymus cinereus), Raynolds’ sedge (Carex reynoldsii), Hood’s sedge (Carex hoodii), and Liddon sedge (C. petasata). The rhizomatous ecotype of bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudogeneria spicata) also occurs sporadically on mesic sites, whereas the purely tussock form is consistently represented only at the xeric extremes. Other graminoids include oatgrass (Danthonia species), prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), Sandberg’s bluegrass (Poa secunda), slender wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus), andneedle and thread (Hesperostipa comata). At higher subalpine elevations, alpine timothy (Phleum alpinum), tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa), spike trisetum (Trisetum spicatum), obtuse sedge (Carex obtusata), and single spike sedge (Carex scirpoidea) become common.

These grasslands also supports a rich forb flora, including..subalpine taxa, that are absent from Rocky Mountain Montane grasslands. Species found in this system at upper montane elevations include arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), silky lupine (Lupinus sericeus), sticky geranium (Geranium viscossisimum), nine-leaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum), prairie cinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis), sulphur penstemon (Penstemon confertus), little larkspur (Delphinium bicolor), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Indian paintbrush (Castilleja species), boreal bedstraw (Galium boreale), prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), prairie arnica (Arnica sororia), boreal sagewort (Artemisia frigida), western sagewort (Artemisia ludoviciana), prairie alumroot (Huechera parviflora), prairie crocus (Pulsatilla patens), rosy pussytoes (Antennaria microphylla), silver lupine (Lupinus argenteus), early biscuitroot (Lomatium macrocarpum), woolly groundsel (Packera cana), alyssum leaf phlox(Phlox alyssifolia),Hood’s phlox (Phlox hoodii), buckwheat (Eriogonum species), fireweed(Chamerion angustifolium), and cut-leaf daisy (Erigeron compositus). Subalpine taxa include diverse leaf cinquefoil (Potentilla diversifolia), alpine goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata), boreal crazyweed (Oxytropis borealis), yellow sweetvetch (Hedysarum sulphurescens), smelowskia (Smelowskia calycina), subalpine buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium), yellow buckwheat (Eriogonum flavum), yellow draba (Draba aurea), Rydberg’s penstemon (Penstemon rydbergii), twinflower sandwort (Minuartia obtusiloba), and rock jasmine (Androsace chamaejasme). Species endemic to the northern Rocky Mountain subalpine and northwestern Great Plains are common in the drier, rocky sites, including Rocky Mountain douglasia (Douglasia montana), shining penstemon (Penstemon nitidus), Alberta penstemon (Penstemon albertinus), Parry’s townsendia (Townsendia parryi) and alpine buckwheat (Eriogonum androsaceum).

Shrub species may be scattered among these grasslands, especially shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii), snowberry (Symphoricarpos species), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), Canada buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis), and common juniper (Juniperus communis). Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), and common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) often occur as patches on north-facing slopes where snow persists longer into the growing season.

National Vegetation Classification Switch to Full NVC View

Adapted from US National Vegetation Classification

A3965 Festuca idahoensis - Carex scirpoidea - Danthonia intermedia Central Rocky Mountain Subalpine Dry Grassland Alliance
CEGL001611 Festuca idahoensis / Carex obtusata Grassland
CEGL001612 Festuca idahoensis / Danthonia intermedia Grassland
CEGL001623 Festuca idahoensis / (Festuca campestris) - Potentilla diversifolia Grassland
CEGL001899 Festuca idahoensis / Carex scirpoidea Grassland
A3966 Festuca idahoensis - Calamagrostis rubescens - Achnatherum nelsonii Central Rocky Mountain Montane Mesic Grassland Alliance
CEGL001614 Festuca idahoensis / Elymus trachycaulus Grassland
CEGL001898 Festuca idahoensis / Carex filifolia Grassland
CEGL001900 Festuca idahoensis / Deschampsia cespitosa Grassland
CEGL005862 Calamagrostis rubescens Grassland
A3986 Festuca campestris - Festuca idahoensis Mesic Grassland Alliance
CEGL001627 Festuca campestris Grassland
*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

Fire return intervals in grassland- Douglas-fir ecotones in southwestern Montana are estimated at 35 to 40 years, although they may be shorter in the grasslands proper (Arno and Gruell, 1983). With fire suppression, shrubs may increase, and trees may encroach on grasslands. Conversely, when fires eliminate shrublands, especially stands of Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana) common in southwestern Montana, these grassland systems may develop.

Rough fescue is highly palatable throughout the grazing season, and so tends to attract livestock use. Summer overgrazing for a two to three year period can result in rough fescue loss (Willms and Rhode 1998). Even at moderate stocking rates, livestock grazing decreases cover of rough fescue, especially during summer months. Oatgrass tends to replace rough fescue under moderate or heavy grazing pressure (Willms and Rhode, 1998).

In Montana, noxious exotic species threaten this grassland system through invasion and potential complete replacement of native species. On drier sites,, sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), knapweed species (Centaurea spp.), Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and whitetop (Cardaria draba) are problematic. Mesic sites within this system are threatened by meadow hawkweed complex (Hieracium pratense, H. floribundum, H. piloselliodes), orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), tall buttercup (Ranunculus acris), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). Introduced grasses like Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), common timothy (Phleum pratense), and smooth brome (Bromus inermis) occur on almost all sites within this system, and can pose significant threats.

In the absence of natural fire, periodic prescribed burns and appropriate grazing management practices can be used to maintain this system. Grazing management can also avert the loss of rough fescue.

Restoration Considerations

Restoration strategies will depend largely on disturbance severity.Modified grazing practices and periodic prescribed fires can help this system to recover without additional restoration. On reclamation sites where soil preparation is required, soil disking techniques that discourage uniform soils and seed beds are preferable. Feathering and smoothing topsoil may benefit invasive species such as Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) and smooth brome (Bromus inermis), while uneven soil conditions may inhibit their growth, allowing rough fescue (Festuca campestris) and its associated grasses to establish more readily (Desserud, 2006).

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

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
    System Code CES306.806, Northern Rocky Mountain Subalpine-Upper Montane Grassland

    National Land Cover Dataset:
    71: Grassland/Herbaceous

    7113: Northern Rocky Mountain Subalpine-Upper Montane Grassland

  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Desserud, Peggy Ann. 2006. Restoration of rough fescue grassland on pipelines in southwestern Alberta. Lethbridge, Alta: Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Rangeland Management Branch, Public Lands and Forests Division.

    • Arno, S. F., and G. Gruell. 1983. Fire history at the forest -grassland ecotone in Southwestern Montana. Journal of Range Management 36:332-336.
    • 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.
    • Willms, Walter D., and Lyle M. Rode. 1998. "Forage Selection by Cattle on Fescue Prairie in Summer or Winter". Journal of Range Management. 51 (5).

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Citation for data on this website:
Rocky Mountain Subalpine-Upper Montane Grassland — Northern Rocky Mountain Subalpine-Upper Montane Grassland.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on , from