Saturday, July 21, 2012

Marching through flowers “of the most exquisite colors and perfume”

En route to the Black Hills, 1874.  Photo by Wm. H. Illingworth, from Wyoming Tales and Trails.
In late July of 1874, Lt. Col. George A. Custer lead an expedition of 100 wagons and 1000 men into the high Black Hills, after more than three weeks of travel across the “dry and woodless country” of Dakota and Wyoming Territories.  There they found themselves in grasslands quite unlike those of the plains.  The change was so striking and so welcome that the soldiers reveled in the lush grass, and decorated the headgear of their horses with wildflowers.  For the next few days, they traveled through spectacular shows of flowers, and grass sometimes as high as a horse’s shoulder.  Custer described these meadows in a report to the 43rd Congress of the United States of America the following year:
“Every step of our march that day was amid flowers of the most exquisite colors and perfume ... it was a strange sight to glance back at the advancing columns of cavalry, and behold the men with beautiful bouquets in their hands, while the head-gear of the horses was decorated with wreaths of flowers fit to crown a queen of May. Deeming it a most fitting appellation, I named this Floral Valley.”
In a letter to the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer, expedition botanist N. H. Donaldson was equally effusive:
“Everybody was making bouquets.  All sorts of interjections were used to express wonder and admiration.  Some said they would give a hundred dollars just to have their wives see the floral richness for even one hour.”
Marching through a Black Hills mountain meadow.  Photo by Wm. H. Illingworth.
Now, in late July of 2012, I’m off on my own expedition to the Black Hills, traveling across the “dry and woodless country” of eastern Wyoming.  Fortunately I’m not walking, and the trip should take only six hours.  This is an expedition in search of the luxuriant mountain meadows that so enchanted Custer’s weary soldiers 138 years ago.  Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to find many.
En route to the Black Hills, 2012; Lost Springs is the rest stop halfway.  Photo courtesy Idunno00923.
Last summer, we did a comprehensive inventory of mountain meadows in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  We assessed grassland quality based on species composition (native vs. non-native) and degree of disturbance.  Of the 78 high meadows surveyed, only eight were ranked A or B!  All are located in dry drainages in the southern part of the Limestone Plateau in the western Black Hills.  Further north, small relic patches of native grassland sometimes are found on lower slopes, but the lush meadows in drainage bottoms that were described by Custer and Donaldson in 1874 now are mostly non-native hay grasses -- timothy and smooth brome.  We don’t know their original composition; even by the time of the first botanical studies in the 1920s, they were largely taken over by timothy.
Native Black Hills montane grassland in Redbird Canyon; note fairy ring.
Photo by Helen McGranahan (Black Hills National Forest).
Assessing a high-ranking grassland in West Hell Canyon.
Black Hills montane grasslands are an interesting mix of grasses, in keeping with the “botanical crossroads” nature of the Black Hills.  Richardson’s needlegrass is a northern and Rocky Mountain species.  Timber oatgrass grows from southeastern-most Russia across Canada and south through much of the western US.  Shortbristle needle and thread is a northern species found only as far south as the Black Hills.  Prairie dropseed grows mainly in the Midwest; it is near its western limit in the Black Hills (Barkworth et al. 2012).
Native grasses in upper Gillette Canyon.
The Black Hills of Dakota ... and Wyoming (click to view).

The 2011 surveys provide only part of a comprehensive picture of Black Hills mountain meadows -- the part in South Dakota.  Contrary to popular opinion, a sizable portion of the “Black Hills of Dakota” is located in Wyoming.  In 2012, Black Hills National Forest is funding montane grassland inventory in northeastern Wyoming, to complete the picture.
The Limestone Plateau, habitat for Black Hills montane grasslands in South Dakota, continues into northeastern Wyoming, and much of our effort will be in that area.  Based on what we saw in 2011, these meadows probably will be mostly hay grass.  But there are several other high-elevation sites of interest, underlain by igneous rock emplaced late in the uplift of the Black Hills (Paleocene, Eocene times).  An intrusion in the Bear Lodge Mountains in the northwest Black Hills includes a huge block of Precambrian granite that forms a series of bald summits called Warren Peaks.  Reconnaissance in 1998 suggested these grasslands are similar to those of the Limestone Plateau but not quite the same.  I'm curious.  What mix of species will we find?  Will they be native?

Whatever it is that grows on Warren Peaks, it won’t be there much longer.  Rare Element Resources reports that the crest of the southern Bear Lodge Mountains “contains one of the largest disseminated rare-earth element (REE) deposits in North America as well as extensive gold occurrences.  The Bear Lodge Project has high-grade light REE and significant quantities of heavy REEs, favorable metallurgy, outstanding infrastructure, and it is located in one of the world's best mining jurisdictions [i.e. the State of Wyoming], recently globally ranked fourth by the Fraser Institute.”  So it goes ... more change is in store for Black Hills montane grasslands.
From Bear Lodge Mountains Rare Earth Element Deposit, Wyoming State Geological Survey
(map by Rare Element Resources, Ltd; click to view).

In the Company of Plants and Rocks will be inactive while in the field.

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