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Montana Field Guides

Alpine-Montane Wet Meadow

Provisional State Rank: S4
(see reason below)

External Links

State Rank Reason
This system is widespread from montane to subalpine elevations across Montana, and occurs frequently in protected areas. Climate change threatens the snowmelt-driven hydrology.

General Description

These moderate-to-high-elevation systems are found throughout the Rocky Mountains, dominated by herbaceous species found on wetter sites with very low-velocity surface and subsurface flows. Occurrences range in elevation from montane to alpine at 1,000 to 3,353 meters (3,280-11,000 feet). This system typically occurs in cold, moist basins, seeps and alluvial terraces of headwater streams or as a narrow strip adjacent to alpine lakes (Hansen et al., 1995). Wet meadows are typically found on flat areas or gentle slopes, but may also occur on sub-irrigated sites with slopes up to 10 percent. In alpine regions, sites are typically small depressions located below late-melting snow patches or on snowbeds. The growing season may only last for one to two months. Soils of this system may be mineral or organic. In either case, soils show typical hydric soil characteristics, including high organic content and/or low chroma and redoximorphic features. This system often occurs as a mosaic of several plant associations, often dominated by graminoids such as tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia caespitosa), and a diversity of montane or alpine sedges such as small-head sedge (Carex illota), small-winged sedge (Carex microptera), black alpine sedge (Carex nigricans), Holm’s Rocky Mountain sedge (Carex scopulorum) shortstalk sedge (Carex podocarpa) and Payson’s sedge (Carex paysonis). Drummond’s rush (Juncus drummondii), Merten’s rush (Juncus mertensianus), and high elevation bluegrasses (Poa arctica and Poa alpina) are often present. Forbs such as arrow-leaf groundsel (Senecio triangularis), slender-sepal marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala), and spreading globeflower (Trollius laxus) often form high cover in higher elevation meadows. Wet meadows are associated with snowmelt and are usually not subjected to high disturbance events such as flooding.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Woody canopy generally less than 10%, total canopy cover more than 10%; subalpine to montane elevations; in snowmelt basins or adjacent to springs, seeps, streams, or lakes, or in areas with high water table; dominated by herbaceous emergent vegetation; organic layer less than 40 cm deep.

Similar Systems

This system is found throughout the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West regions, ranging in elevation from montane to alpine (1000-3600 m). In Montana, they are most common as high-elevation wetlands in the colder and wetter mountains of the Beartooth-Absaroka range and in northwestern Montana.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 1,249 square kilometers are classified as Alpine-Montane Wet Meadow 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, Broadwater, Carbon, Cascade, Deer Lodge, Flathead, Gallatin, Glacier, 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
Small patch

Moisture for these wet meadow community types comes from groundwater, stream discharge, overland flow, overbank flow, and precipitation. Salinity and alkalinity are generally low due to the frequent flushing of moisture through the meadow. Depending on the slope, topography, hydrology, soils and substrate, intermittent, ephemeral, or permanent pools may be present. Standing water may be present during some or all of the growing season, with water tables typically remaining at or near the soil surface. Fluctuations of the water table throughout the growing season are not uncommon, however. On drier sites supporting the less mesic types, the late-season water table may be one meter or more below the surface. Soils typically possess a high proportion of organic matter, but this may vary considerably depending on the frequency and magnitude of alluvial deposition. Organic composition of the soil may include a thin layer near the soil surface. Soils may exhibit gleying and/or mottling throughout the profile.


A variety of plant communities are found within this system in Montana. Composition and zonation of wet meadow plant communities represent the competitive abilities, moisture and nutrient requirements, and stress tolerance of anoxic conditions of individual plant species. Variability of water-table depth and reduced soil conditions, soil pH, and saturation duration, strongly influences the distribution and assemblage of species within a wet meadow. Obligate wetland species occur within a fairly restricted range of water-table depth, whereas many common species such as tufted hairgrass, Baltic rush (Juncus balticus) and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) occur over wide ranges. Overlap in ranges of water-table depth for individual species suggests that small changes in hydrology could potentially result in shifts in dominance by different species, and ultimately replacement or loss of certain species.

Many alpine wet meadows throughout the state are dominated by tufted hairgrass, forming a dense stand of tussocks. The tufted hairgrass Temporarily Flooded Herbaceous Alliance has been found at elevations as high as 10,100 feet, but is much more common at lower elevations where it often occupies low gradient areas and slopes less than 15 percent, facing north to northeast (Cooper et al., 1997). This alliance is thought to be found in relatively undisturbed sites (Hansen et al., 1995), while more disturbed sites are dominated by Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), fowl bluegrass (Poa palustris), redtop (Agrostis stolonifera) and Baltic rush.

In southwestern Montana, wet meadow communities are dominated by species more characteristic of the Middle Rocky Mountains ecoregion, such as Holm’s Rocky Mountain sedge (Cooper et al, 1999). Drier sites, especially those where soils and/or hydrology have been disturbed, may be characterized by Baltic rush and clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis) communities. In the Northern Rocky Mountains, shortstalk sedge or Payson’s sedge are dominant (Lesica, 2002), often found on slopes that range from zero to eight percent where the growing season lasts only for one to two months. In these northern occurrences, other common graminoids include small-head sedge, lens sedge (Carex lenticularis), smallwing sedge, black alpine sedge, beaked sedge (Carex utriculata), Drummond’s rush, Merten’s rush, arctic bluegrass, and alpine bluegrass. Common forbs include woolly pussytoes (Antennaria lanata), spreading globeflower, slender-sepal marsh marigold, arrow-leaf groundsel, elephant’s head (Pedicularis groenlandica), small flowered anemone (Anemone parviflora), alpine bistort (Polygonum viviparum), Buek’s groundsel (Packera subnuda), and Rocky Mountain goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata). Sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens) often occurs in open areas within the turf or open peat. At more montane elevations, extensive shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) shrublands are frequently found adjacent to this system.

At montane elevations, zonation of wet meadow complexes is evident with sedges such as inflated sedges (Carex utriculata and C. vescicaria), wooly sedge (Carex pellita), Nebraska sedge (Carex nebrascensis) and water sedge (Carex aquatilis) occupying the wettest zone of the meadow complex. These sedge-dominated communities are typically surrounded by spikerushes (Eleocharis spp.), followed by a zone of grasses and forbs such as Baltic rush, bluejoint reedgrass (Calamagrostis canadensis), slimstem reedgrass (Calamagrostis stricta), pink elephant’s head and water ragwort (Senecio hydrophilus).

National Vegetation Classification Switch to Full NVC View

Adapted from US National Vegetation Classification

A0958 Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. Floribunda Wet Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001106 Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda - Carex spp. Wet Shrubland
A1300 Carex spectabilis Subalpine Meadow Alliance
CEGL005867 Carex spectabilis / Arnica x diversifolia Alpine Meadow
A1361 Poa glauca Wet Meadow Alliance
A1374 Juncus balticus - Juncus mexicanus Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001838 Juncus balticus Wet Meadow
A1468 Carex aperta - Carex exsiccata Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001801 Carex aperta Lowland Wet Meadow
A1698 Caltha leptosepala - Rhodiola rhodantha Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001954 Caltha leptosepala Wet Meadow
A3155 Carex elynoides - Carex rupestris - Kobresia myosuroides Rocky Mountain Alpine Turf Alliance
A3172 Juncus drummondii - Juncus parryi - Sibbaldia procumbens Rocky Mountain Alpine Snowbed Alliance
CEGL001904 Juncus drummondii / Antennaria lanata Alpine Snowbed
CEGL001906 Juncus parryi - Erigeron ursinus Alpine Snowbed
CEGL005871 Juncus parryi - Sibbaldia procumbens Alpine Snowbed
A3435 Carex limosa - Carex buxbaumii - Triglochin maritima Alkaline Graminoid Fen Alliance
CEGL001769 Carex saxatilis Fen
A3437 Carex lasiocarpa - Carex livida - Dulichium arundinaceum Acidic Graminoid Fen Alliance
A3770 Salix wolfii - Salix brachycarpa - Betula glandulosa Wet Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001079 Betula glandulosa - Carex utriculata Wet Shrubland
CEGL005887 Betula glandulosa - Carex spp. Wet Shrubland
A3773 Cornus sericea - Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda - Ribes spp. Wet Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001107 Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda - Deschampsia caespitosa Wet Shrubland
A3804 Carex aquatilis - Carex utriculata - Deschampsia caespitosa Wet meadow Alliance
CEGL001562 Carex utriculata Wet Meadow
CEGL001599 Deschampsia caespitosa Wet Meadow
CEGL001601 Deschampsia caespitosa / Carex nebrascensis Wet Meadow
CEGL001603 Deschampsia caespitosa / Carex spp. Wet Meadow
CEGL001792 Carex microptera Wet Meadow
CEGL001802 Carex aquatilis Wet Meadow
CEGL001803 Carex aquatilis / Carex utriculata Wet Meadow
CEGL001882 Deschampsia caespitosa / Caltha leptosepala Wet Meadow
CEGL001889 Deschampsia caespitosa / Potentilla diversifolia Wet Meadow
A3805 Carex nebrascensis - Carex vesicaria - Carex pellita Wet meadow Alliance
CEGL001809 Carex pellita Wet Meadow
CEGL001813 Carex nebrascensis Wet Meadow
CEGL002661 Carex vesicaria Wet Meadow
A3806 Carex praegracilis - Carex scopulorum - Eleocharis quinqueflora Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001822 Carex scopulorum Wet Meadow
CEGL001823 Carex scopulorum / Caltha leptosepala Wet Meadow
CEGL001825 Carex simulata Fen
CEGL001836 Eleocharis quinqueflora Fen
CEGL002660 Carex praegracilis Wet Meadow
A3807 Eleocharis palustris - Eleocharis acicularis Marsh Alliance
CEGL001833 Eleocharis palustris Marsh
A3808 Glyceria grandis - Glyceria striata - Glyceria borealis Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001569 Glyceria borealis Wet Meadow
CEGL003429 Glyceria grandis Wet Meadow
A3809 Heracleum maximum - Veratrum californicum - Rorippa spp. Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001940 Heracleum maximum / Rudbeckia occidentalis Wet Meadow
CEGL005857 Heracleum maximum Wet Meadow
A3810 Saxifraga odontoloma - Senecio triangularis - Mertensia ciliata Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001987 Senecio triangularis Wet Meadow
A3812 Mimulus spp. - Primula parryi - Dodecatheon redolens Wet Meadow Alliance
A3815 Calamagrostis canadensis - Calamagrostis stricta - Poa palustris Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001559 Calamagrostis canadensis Western Wet Meadow
CEGL001659 Poa palustris Wet Meadow
A3832 Carex nigricans - Sibbaldia procumbens - Trollius laxus Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001816 Carex nigricans Wet Meadow
CEGL005824 Carex nigricans / Sibbaldia procumbens Wet Meadow
CEGL005858 Trollius laxus / Parnassia fimbriata Wet Meadow
A3892 Equisetum fluviatile - Equisetum x ferrissii Marsh Alliance
CEGL002746 Equisetum fluviatile Marsh
A3930 Eleocharis palustris - Eleocharis rostellata Alkaline-Saline Marsh Alliance
CEGL003428 Eleocharis rostellata Marsh
A3948 Valeriana sitchensis - Luzula glabrata var. hitchcockii - Xerophyllum tenax Subalpine Mesic Meadow Alliance
CEGL001998 Valeriana sitchensis / Veratrum viride Meadow
A3953 Festuca arizonica - Muhlenbergia montana - Poa fendleriana Southern Rocky Mountain Montane Grassland Alliance
A4165 Poa secunda - Muhlenbergia richardsonis - Carex douglasii Moist Meadow Alliance
*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
Communities associated with this ecological system are adapted to soils that may be flooded or saturated throughout the growing season. They may also occur on areas with soils that are only saturated early in the growing season, or intermittently during heavy convective storms in summer. Most appear to be relatively stable types, although in some areas these may be impacted by intensive livestock grazing.

Herbaceous wet meadows that have experienced disturbance like excessive grazing or heavy recreational pressure are often invaded by non-native vegetation and are difficult to restore. Typical successional plants to invade disturbed areas include Nebraska sedge (Carex nebrascensis), Baltic rush (Juncus balticus), and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). To minimize disturbance, light to moderate grazing can be restricted to periods when the soil is completely dry and can be timed to occur after the maturation of native seedheads (Hansen et al., 1995). Recreational use should be diverted away from these meadows, and pack stock should be fed certified weed-free or pelletized feed.

Restoration Considerations
Large scale restoration projects within this system are usually mine lands reclamation projects in non-protected areas. Small scale projects may occur in areas of heavy recreational use or areas of past intensive grazing.

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
NatureServe Western Ecology Group

Montana Version Authors
L. Vance, C. McIntyre, T. Luna

Version Date

  • Classification and Map Identifiers

    Cowardin Wetland Classification:
    System Palustrine
    Class Emergent
    Water Regime Seasonally Flooded/Saturated
    Geographically Isolated Wetland Sometimes

    NatureServe Identifiers:
    Element Global ID 28648
    System Code CES306.812, Rocky Mountain Alpine-Montane Wet Meadow

    National Land Cover Dataset:
    95: Emergent Herbaceous Wetland

    9217: Rocky Mountain Alpine-Montane Wet Meadow

  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Brown RW, Chambers JC, Wheeler RM. 1988. Adaptations of Deschampsia cespitosa (tufted hairgrass) for revegetation of high elevation disturbances: some selection criteria. High altitude revegetation workshop no. 8: Proceedings; 1988 March 3-4; Fort Collins, CO. Information Series No. 59. Fort Collins, CO: Colorado Water Resources Research Institute; p 147-72.
    • Brown RW, Chambers JC. 1990. Reclamation practices in high-mountain ecosystems. In: Schmidt WC, McDonald KJ, editors. Proceedings--symposium on whitebark pine ecosystems: ecology and management of a high-mountain resource; 1989 March 29-31; Bozeman, MT. General Technical Report. INT-270. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Forest Service. Intermountain Research Station; p 329-34.
    • Brown RW, Johnston RS. 1978. Rehabilitation of a high elevation mine disturbance. In: Kenney ST, editor. Proceedings: High altitude workshop no. 3. Environmental Res. Cent. Inf. Series No. 28. Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University; p 116-30.
    • Buckner D.L. and J.W. Marr. 1990. Use of sodding in alpine vegetation. Pp 501-508 in: Society for Ecological Restoration, H. Glenn Hughes, and Thomas M. Bonnicksen. 1990. Restoration ''89: the new management challenge : first annual meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration, January 16-20, 1989, Oakland, California. Madison, Wis: Society for Ecological Restoration, The University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
    • Chambers JC, MacMahon JA, Brown RW. 1987. Germination characteristics of alpine grasses and forbs: a comparison of early and late seral dominants with reclamation potential. Reclamation and Revegetation Research(6):235-49.
    • Chambers, Jeanne C., James A. MacMahon, and Ray W. Brown. 1990. "Alpine Seedling Establishment: The Influence of Disturbance Type". Ecology. 71 (4): 1323-1341.
    • Cooper, D. J. 1986b. Community structure and classification of Rocky Mountain wetland ecosystems. Pages 66-147 in: J. T. Windell, et al. An ecological characterization of Rocky Mountain montane and subalpine wetlands. USDI Fish & Wildlife Service Biological Report 86(11). 298 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.
    • Cooper, Stephen V., Peter Lesica, and Deborah S. Page-Dumroese. 1995. Plant community classification for alpine vegetation on the Beaverhead National Forest, Montana. Ogden, UT (324 25th Street, Ogden 84401): U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station.
    • Cowardin, L.M., V. Carter, F.C. Golet, and E.T. LaRoe. 1979. Classification of wetlands and deepwater habitats of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 103pp.
    • Jonas, R. 1962. Population dynamics and ecology of Merriam's turkey. Mont. Dept. Fish & Game, Final Rep. Proj. No. W-91-R-4 Job No. II-B.
    • Kittel, G., E. Van Wie, M. Damm, R. Rondeau, S. Kettler, A. McMullen, and J. Sanderson. 1999. A classification of riparian and wetland plant associations of Colorado: A user's guide to the classification project. Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado State University, Fort Collins CO. 70 pp. plus appendices.
    • Lesica, P. 2002. A flora of Glacier National Park, Montana. Oregon State Univeristy Press, Corvallis. 512 pp.

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Citation for data on this website:
Alpine-Montane Wet Meadow — Rocky Mountain Alpine-Montane Wet Meadow.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on , from