What makes Beartooth Highway wildflowers wilder than all the rest? Each life community or “ecotype” is characterized by different plants (flora and fauna) that strongly adapt themselves to the land and climate. These communities make up the ecological system of Beartooth Country.
Ecotypes of the Beartooth Corridor
As visitors drive the Beartooth Highway they pass through a variety of ecotypes. An ecotype is a complexity of living and non-living components each interacting with each other to function as a system. Each ecotype is dominated by a plant form.
Alpine Meadow – The Tundra – above 9,500 feet
Low-growing grasses, forbs and occasional shrubs tolerant of cold temperatures and windy conditions dominate tundra vegetation in an alpine meadow. The Beartooth Highway is one of the longest paved roads in America to traverse alpine meadows and it provides a visitors a rare opportunity to get “up close and personal” with this type of landscape.
Survival of trees at this elevation is a constant struggle. Winter winds have a severe drying effect that controls their growth. Nature’s sandpaper – winter winds carrying ice pellets and soil particles – are at work blasting, scouring, scalloping and polishing the few trees that manage to survive – often turning in to odd and grotesque forms. Krummholz, a German word meaning “elfin timber” or “crooked wood” is a term given to the stunted trees found at high elevations. Each year the protecting dead twigs on the windward side of the trees are broken off by the force of nature’s sandpaper. At the same time, new growth on the leeward side of the tree becomes established. After a number of years, the clump “creeps” ahead as if in retreat from the wind!
Mountain Meadows – below 9,500 feet
Mountain meadows dominated by grasses and forbs are present below 9,500 feet. Mountain meadows may include small stands of scattered Engelmann spruce, sub alpine fir, and lodge pole pine. Small areas of mountain meadows are also present within forest clearing, and are located on well-drained soils. Watch for deer, elk, moose and other wildlife grazing among the Beartooth’s mountain meadows.
Look for the trees with smooth, white bark – the aspen leaves rustle in the breeze. Aspen groves form a kind of oasis for a variety of wildlife that use the groves for both food and cover. Aspens turn the landscape gold in fall, adding variety to the landscape.
Shrub Grassland Meadows – below 8,000 feet
Shrubs dominate the grasslands below 8,000 feet. Big sagebrush is the dominant shrub. Also present are scattered clumps of juniper, cinquefoil, white bark pine and Douglas fir. A large variety of grasses are also found among the meadows.
Out West – Grass is Money!
Cattlemen were among the first users of National Forest lands when they freely grazed their raw-boned, Texas long-horned cattle to supply beef to mining camps. Today, grazing of livestock within National Forests is managed according to careful range analysis, so that the best use of forage can be maintained without damage to the land.
Cattle, like elk are members of the life communities utilizing the various grasses and plants of Beartooth’s Shrub Grassland Meadows. Look for cattle grazing the sagebrush and grassy slopes from July to October – converting grass into beef for the American table.