Friday, August 31, 2012

Road Trip to Montana Part II


Last month I described a road trip across the Rockies, where we made lots of Project BudBurst observations while going up and over the Rockies, and seeing plants in wonderful places such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Summer is the perfect time for vacations and adventures such as this, and its also a fun way to make Project BudBurst observations too!  For me it really adds to the enjoyment of the trip, it gives you an extra excuse to look at wildflowers and learn some new natural history!

This month I wanted to talk about the rest of this trip, and also to talk about the many ways that volunteers are contributing to Project BudBurst in Montana, where I spent much of my career up at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Black cottonwoods along Clark Fork River in Fall
Like most mountainous states, Montana provides a wide range of opportunities for single observations as well as monitoring local plants to contribute to Project BudBurst. The state is renowned for its natural beauty and diversity. It has a small population (less than a million people for the fifth largest state in the union!) and most live in a few small metropolitan areas leaving most of the state in a wild or nearly wild condition. It's a real mecca for naturalists and ecologists!

The diversity of the state mostly comes from a diverse geology (it is the treasure state, after all) and the diverse range of climates that result from how wind and storms pass over these many mountains and plains. The northwestern part of the state has many similarities to the coastal Pacific Northwest, especially the Cascade region. This is because the moist winds from the ocean can find some low passes where clouds and moisture are sufficient to allow many of these coastal plants to survive.
These dense forests contrast with the open plains and ribbons of riparian forests that dominate the eastern two thirds of the state. This is the region that inspired the phrase "big sky country".
The northern Front Range in Montana  
My trip to Montana this time mostly focused on the area from Yellowstone in the SW up to Missoula in western Montana. Missoula is famous as a artsy cultural center for Montana, especially for the visual arts, writing, and theater. And of course its the home of the University of Montana "Grizzlies".  It was also the basis for the the popular film "A River Runs Through It". From a natural history perspective it is quite fascinating as a cross roads between the nearby moist forests in the ancient Bitteroot mountain range to the west, the dry grassland valley where the town is, and the looming Rattlesnake mountains to the east and north. A small change in elevation or exposure to sunlight leads to completely different ecosystems.  Literally it goes from mossy green forests to bone dry brown grassland, all within a few hundred feet of one another.

Back in 1993 when I first moved to Missoula I started making phenology observations, similar to what is part of the Project BudBurst protocols today.  I used a trail near my house that goes up the western facing slope of Mount Sentinel. Every 2-3 days each spring (and sometimes in the summer too) my friends and I would write down every plant we saw in flower along a trail, and eventually ended up noting all the phenological stages in our notebooks.  In the first few years we were able to find 130 plant species within 6 feet of the trail, just going on a loop for about 1 mile (!).  Later this expanded to over 200 species by extending the trail up to about a 3 mile loop, near the top of the mountain, about 1500' up.  Its a wonderful way to learn local natural history!  Just try to learn a new plant every week. Soon you know your trail, and the common plants pretty well!
Chokecherries cover Mt. Sentinel with white in the late spring

The local Clark Fork Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society is now continuing this study.  We  have observations on this trail over the past 17 years, making quite a unique study of phenology and environmental change. The recently collected data is now a part of Project BudBurst. In the spring the local society takes a hike on this trail once a week, right after work, about 6:30 pm or so and combines a fun natural history hike with collecting valuable data for Project BudBurst. This is a great way to do Project BudBurst. Many native plant societies have field trips like this, to enjoy local natural areas, to learn more about the plant you see there, and meet other like minded individuals. On the day I was there rainstorms threatened to strike, but they did little to dampen enthusiasm to see what was out on the trail that day.  It was a wonderful time to see the plants in Montana. In contrast to most of the rest of the country, Montana had a wet cool spring and early summer. So the grasses and flowers were as green and as towering as ever. Gardens and prairies were colorful and verdent. A great way to enjoy travelling, nature, and helping Project BudBurst!

Paul Alaback

p.s. my son and I did complete our first half marathon race (the Missoula Marathon) on this trip too, which was one of the major motivations for this trip. Its always nice to combine lots of things together to have more fun on road trips and vacations!

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