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Understanding Cottonwood Forests at Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
The 375,000 acres of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in central Montana remain largely unspoiled from the time that Lewis and Clark traveled through on their epic journey more than 200 years ago. Yet land use practices surrounding this region have changed dramatically since then. Today, scientists are studying the effects those practices may have had on streamside (riparian) areas both within and outside of the Monument. 

Scientific research on the cottonwood forests of the Monument were featured in two presentations during A Decade of Discovery, a science symposium celebrating the 10th anniversary of the National Landscape Conservation System sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. The event is May 24 – 28, 2010 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Cottonwood trees are a significant component of many riparian areas in arid regions of the Western United States. These trees need a very specific type of habitat in order to grow and reproduce. Cottonwood seedlings depend on flood events and spring melts in order to become established. They germinate in the bare, moist zone between the high and low water line of riparian areas during a short period in early summer each year. Very few of these seedlings survive long enough to become saplings. Scientists are looking for answers to questions about how best to encourage seedling success.
Monitoring of Cottonwood Seedling Demography in the Missouri Breaks National Monument describes a 15-year program of monitoring cottonwood seedlings annually at eight sites with varying grazing intensities. Information from this study is helping to inform managers about the interacting factors affecting the recruitment of new cottonwood forests.
Historical Cover Types and Riparian Management along the Missouri River in the Missouri Breaks National Monument examines changes in riparian cover types over time, using early 1890’s maps and aerial imagery from the early 1950’s and 2006. By comparing the riparian cover in these images, scientists hope to determine how humans may have impacted the area through water management, livestock grazing practices, direct conversion of riparian cover, or the introduction of invasive species. This information also helps scientists determine the role that natural features may have played in impacting cottonwood forests, such as variations in valley width or climatic changes that drive ice episodes. Most scientists agree that a number of natural and human-caused factors affect cottonwood forests, but there is still much to learn about their interrelationships.
Stands of riparian cottonwood forest are not extensive in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument but are highly valued in a landscape that is generally too dry to support widespread upland forests. Researchers, such as those presenting at the symposium, are studying the various and interrelated human and natural causes of the loss of cottonwood forests in the Monument in order inform managers on land use practices that would help restore these important trees and the riparian areas they support. This information can also be used by other public and private land managers in order to ensure that cottonwood forests and healthy riparian areas continue to exist throughout the arid Western landscape.

While the presentations featured at the Symposium focus on the work of experienced scientists, the Monument also provides opportunities for those just starting out. For example, the Monument is hosting a GeoCorps Intern who is enhancing educational programs available for school groups at the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center. Students who visit the center are given an opportunity to explore Native American culture, learn the about the geology and wildlife of the region, and study aquatic ecology. The GeoCorps America Program is sponsored by the Geological Society of America (GSA) and places geoscientists, including college students, in temporary summer positions with the BLM, the USDA Forest Service and National Park Service.

Another example is the Native American Educational Partnership the Monument has developed with the Tribal Colleges in Montana. Native American interns receive hands-on experience along with educational opportunities in a diverse array of Natural Resource and Wildland Recreation topic areas. Seasonal employment provides a meaningful learning experience for students in Natural Resources; local BLM resource specialists provide interns with weekly ‘outdoor classroom’ learning experiences. Interns not only take part in active BLM projects, but also learn about the ecology and science behind the projects, with the hope that the students become interested in working for the BLM in the future.

Among the special resources of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument are the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, six wilderness study areas (WSAs), the Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway, and the Cow Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern. 

To learn more about Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, please click here.

To read more features and learn more about A Decade of Discovery Science Symposium, please click here.

A thunderstorm rolls in at sunset in Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
A thunderstorm rolls in during a sunset at Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
Riparian area changes are a focus of scientific study at Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
Cottonwood trees have specific habitat requirements. Scientists are studying natural and human-caused impacts in the Monument.
Bald Eagle's nest at Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
Wildlife on the Monument is plentiful with 230 bird species using the area, including white pelicans.
Pelican flying over Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
Spiny softshell turtle, one of the species dependent on the Monument's riparian areas.
Spiny Softshell Turtle