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The Biophysical Landscape
Sun River Wildlife Management Area. Sun River WMA

Montana is commonly divided into two geographic regions: the mountainous west—the quarter of the state that is part of the Rocky Mountain region; and the eastern three-quarters of Montana covered by the Great Plains.

The Montana Challenge project, however, sees three distinct regions: the broad and often dry eastern plains; the western mountains; and the area in between—a region Montana historians Michael Malone and Richard Roeder once called "a sort of twilight zone between mountains and prairies."

Interestingly, this modern division is known to some Montana Challenge demographers as the "three states of Montana" and it's based mostly on new demographic information. Yet this modern segmenting nearly mirrors the sharp lines drawn to create Montana's original nine Pioneer Counties in 1865: Missoula, Beaverhead, Madison, Deer Lodge, Jefferson, Gallatin, Edgerton (now Lewis and Clark), Chouteau and Big Horn (now Custer).

Montana is the nation's fourth largest state. With just more than 900,000 residents, fewer people inhabit Montana's 47,138 square miles than just about any other state. These days we're being drawn to, and clustering near, the state's larger cities and towns, and especially to those located near mountains and forests.

Throughout the West—and especially in Montana—we are witnessing and participating in a well-documented cultural continental drift that began more than a decade ago. Between 1990 and 1997, for instance, about 53,000 people came to live in Montana from another state or country. Pollsters tell us that 60 percent of Americans over 50 years old dream of finding a small town or a rural county to move to when they retire. For many the dream is an image of Montana.

Overall, Montana can boast more than one elk, three deer and just six people per square mile. As for people calling Montana home, the state still boasts proudly of maintaining one of the lowest average state resident population densities in the country. And in Montana, cattle still outnumber their human neighbors, a comforting notion among many new and long-time residents.

At 630 miles long and 280 miles wide, in land area alone Montana could comfortably fit three states the size of Pennsylvania within its borders. The state sits, on average, at 3,400 feet above sea level, with a high point of 12,850 feet at Granite Peak in southern Montana's Beartooth Range near Red Lodge, to the low point at 1,800 feet near Troy, in northwestern Montana's Kootenai River Valley.

Montana's climate has similar extremes, from eastern Montana's 117-degree all-time hotspots at Glendive and Medicine Lake, to an Arctic 70-below zero atop Rogers Pass near Helena.

In their popular history, Montana: Tale of Two Centuries, historians Malone and Roeder suggest that the rugged and demanding landscape of Montana's commonly bifurcated east-west regions cultivates a unique human ecology. "These two geographical provinces were joined into one community," they write, "not by any geographical logic, but simply by the accidental occurrences of history…they reveal many differences, both in environment and in human history."

Writing much earlier in Montana: An Uncommon Land, historian K. Ross Toole suggests that Montana's "land itself is at once mountainous and flat, hot and cold, beautiful and terrible, and benign and malevolent."

The Eastern Plains

Montana's eastern plains are part of the great Interior Plain of North America that stretches from Canada south to Mexico, characterized by Toole as, "Treeless, level, and semiarid, " covered by "short grass" in a Great Plains environment.

The landscape is typically high, rolling land, with some scattered hills and wide river valleys including those of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. In the southeast and north are badlands or "breaks" sculpted by wind and water. The area generally receives less than 15 inches of rain a year, endures days of winds in the blistering heat of summer and during the blizzards and cold of winter.

The eastern plains are glaciated to the north and—from Havre to Culbertson and Sidney to Plentywood—they're often characterized by severely eroded, steep and broken slopes and deep ravines formed in the soft sedimentary beds. To the south lie the sedimentary plains—from Hardin to Forsyth and Ekalaka to Broadus. Throughout, the landscape undulates and rolls to uplands, low terraces, and flood plains. Smooth hills bracket narrow stream valleys and low-level terraces and valley floors open to shallow, broad swales.

The eastern plains struggle to soak up between 11 to 14 inches of precipitation annually. With cold winters and hot summers, the rather short three to four month growing season assumes importance, especially for the vegetative growth that the dominant farm and ranch economy depends on, and for Montana's fish and wildlife populations.

The eastern plains provide vital habitat for mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope, great horned owls, meadowlarks, songbirds, sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, nesting ducks, rabbits, rodents, coyote, fox, bobcat, black-tailed prairie dogs, small aquatic mammals and amphibians.

The region's lakes and watercourses show an equally diverse array of native and introduced warm water fish, including: shovelnose sturgeon, pallid sturgeon, paddlefish, shortnose gar, northern pike, goldeye, shorthead redhorse, white sucker, blue sucker, bigmouth buffalo, carp, smallmouth buffalo, river carpsucker, golden shiner, northern redbelly dace, pearl dace, lake chub, creek chub, flathead chub, sturgeon chub, longnose dace, flathead minnow, brassy minnow, western silvery minnow, emerald shiner, sand shiner, brook stickleback, crappie, freshwater drum, yellow perch, catfish, burbot, mottled sculpin, sauger, and walleye. Introduced coldwater species like lake trout, Chinook salmon, and kokanee are found in the Ft. Peck Reservoir.

The Front Range

The Montana Challenge's front range, which is most commonly grouped with the eastern plains, includes groups of mountains that spring up from the prairie: the Bear Paws, Big Snowy, Big Horn, Judith, and Little Rocky mountains. There are places within this transition from the mountains to the plains that are apparently today less of a twilight zone and more of the dreamed of home place for a growing number of home seekers.

With a portion of the front range attracting only five to nine inches of precipitation annually, and with about one-third of that precious water falling in May and June, a segment of the front range comprises Montana's driest region. The other segment—generally along the upper Yellowstone and Musselshell river valleys—harbors a wet zone where 10-14 inches of precipitation falls annually and more democratically, with 80 percent of the rain or snow arriving during the April through September growing season.

The front range is also Montana's most climatically unpredictable region. Temperature changes often occur suddenly with the arrival of large Canadian cold fronts moving over the Big Horn Mountains where it can remain frigid for weeks when cold air becomes literally trapped in the valley. The area is also know for its Chinook winds in winter and spring when winter temperature will warm to above freezing for a few days nearly every cold-weather month.

In the mostly glaciated portion of the front range—from towns like Big Sandy to Great Falls and from Fort Benton to Chouteau—wet meadows and subirrigated landscapes give way to land fed by run-off from higher elevations or overflowing streams in flood plains and coulee bottoms. The area is a mix of small mesas, benches, deeply eroded stream channels, undulating rolling uplands, valley bottoms, moderate to steep slopes, and thin breaks that look like stair steps.

The southern half of the front range is mostly sedimentary plains. From places like Stanford and Lewistown and Harlowton and Joliet, the landscape rolls to uplands, low terraces, and flood plains. There are characteristic steep hills cut by narrow stream valleys and narrow ridges, and uplands on ridge tops.

With cold winters and hot summers, and in spite of the rather short 105-day growing season in the uplands, and the longer and wetter 130-day growing season in the river valleys, the region has long attracted agricultural interests and the interest of hunters and anglers drawn to the diverse wildlife populations that benefit from this ironically lush landscape.

Region wide, the landscape supports elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, antelope, raptors, great horned owls, meadowlarks, songbirds, Hungarian partridge, chucker, sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, nesting ducks, jackrabbit, cottontail rabbit, coyote, fox, bobcat, black-tailed prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, small aquatic mammals and amphibians.

The front range provides habitat for warm water fish like shovelnose sturgeon, pallid sturgeon, paddlefish, northern pike, goldeye, white sucker, longnose sucker, mountain sucker, carp, lake chub, longnose dace, flathead minnow, emerald shiner, catfish, burbot, mottled sculpin, yellow perch, sauger, and walleye. Cold water species include rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, and mountain whitefish.

The Western Region

Flat, grassy valleys and foothills and mountains of fir, spruce, pine, and other evergreens cover the Rocky Mountains and the western region of Montana.

The southwestern valleys stretch from 30 to 40 miles wide while the valleys in the north are a much narrower 1 to 5 miles wide. The mountains hold snow for eight to 10 months of the year and a few active glaciers persist in the high country.

Montana's Rockies are best known for the Continental Divide, the place that separates waters running west into the Pacific Ocean and east to the Atlantic Ocean. Montana is the only state that has rivers that drain into the Gulf of Mexico (Missouri River system), Hudson Bay (Belly, St. Mary's, and Waterton rivers), and the Pacific Ocean (Columbia River system).

There are more than 50 mountain ranges in this region, including the Absaroka, Beartooth, Beaverhead, Big Belt, Bitterroot, Bridger, Cabinet, Crazy, Flathead, Gallatin, Little Belt, Madison, Mission, Swan, and Tobacco Root ranges.

The Rocky Mountain foothills and the often-inviting valley bottoms characterize the western region landscape. The foothills have a continental climate typical of the interiors of the large continents of the northern hemisphere. This climate is characterized by winter temperatures cold enough to support a fixed period of stable snow cover each year, and relatively low precipitation occurring mostly in summer. The foothills climate, however, is modified by the pattern and contours of the mountains, valleys and plains. Elevation and the direction of the slopes affect both precipitation and temperature from the burgeoning northwestern towns like Kalispell, in the middle of one of the state's fastest growing areas, to Missoula, Cut Bank, Helena, Dillon, Livingston Bozeman, and Lewistown.

The foothills generally benefit from 10-14 inches of rain in most areas, to more than 20 inches annually. While spring and summer in the western region foothills is frost free for 96 to 108 days each year, fall and winter temperature changes occur suddenly, especially just south of the Canadian border to the Little Belt Mountains and the upper Yellowstone River Valley. The temperature changes bring with them wind conditions that can cause severe wind erosion and property damage. Frontal system winds can reach speeds of 100 mph and wind of 50-60 mph are common.

Life in the western region's Rocky Mountain valley bottoms, however, is a bit different. Some areas in the higher and cooler valleys remain frost-free for just about 95 days. In the warmer valleys farther west—like the Bitterroot Valley—the growing season averages nearly 140 days, the longest frost-free span in Montana. Strong winds are uncommon, but gusty winds usually are carried in by strong frontal systems. Flood plains, narrow drainages and areas that receive more than normal moisture due to higher ground runoff, and snowdrifts add to the landscapes diverse plant life. Uplands are found throughout the region on nearly level to up to moderately steep lands. In places like the Blackfoot River watershed outwash fans and low terraces are mixed with glacial moraines, rock-strewn slopes, high benches and forest parks.

The region provides habitat for antelope, mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose, mountain goat, big horn sheep, black bear, mountain lion, fox, coyote, bobcat, lynx, song birds, ruffed grouse, sage grouse, Franklin grouse, blue grouse, rabbit, snowshoe rabbit, hawks, eagles, peregrine falcons, weasels, yellow-bellied marmot, chipmunks.

The western regions supports native and introduced fish including white sturgeon, northern pike, largescale sucker, longnose sucker, mountain sucker, northern pike minnow, peamouth, redside shiner, longnose dace, catfish, largemouth bass, burbot, mottled sculpin, shorthead sculpin, slimy sculpin, torrent sculpin, yellow perch, rainbow trout, westslope cutthroat trout, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, golden trout, brown trout, brook trout, bull trout, lake trout, Arctic grayling, mountain white fish, pygmy whitefish, and kokanee.


Modern environmental historians are urging us all to look at place and people together. It should be easy to consider community as an organic concept. A community depends on common values, common expectations, and a common good. We, the people of Montana, are dependent on place and on each other in much the same way as plants and animals.

More and more, and with projects like the Montana Challenge, one can see how Montana's physical landscapes determine how a community of people views life, family, work and play. To think of it in another way, historian Richard White, in his essay, "Do You Work for a Living?" writes, if those committed to the environment "could focus on our work rather than on our leisure, then a whole series of fruitful new angles on the world might be possible. It links us to each other, and it links us to nature."

When we understand the natural, social and economic forces confronting Montana, and when we think about living in the West, for those willing to stay there exists a need to think about becoming more connected to place, and by extension to the communities where we live.

The idea is simple: Together we can make our places better. That is—and perhaps always will be—the Montana challenge.

This report was completed in 2004.