Field notes from Montana's Continental Divide Trail: A walk through history

View along Montana's Continental Divide Trail.

mypubliclands, flickr

For the past couple of months, we've brought you updates from Montana, where Wilderness Society interns Lily Clarke and Greta Hoffman are conducting collaborative research with the University of Montana on the effects of fire and restoration on forest ecosystems for ecologist Travis Belote. This latest dispatch hails from Montana's Continental Divide Trail.

By Greta Hoffman

Standing on the dusty trail with my sturdy, well-worn hiking boots pointed north, I look off into the expanse of endless foothills and mountains ahead of me.

The streams to the right of me will flow to the Gulf of Mexico and the streams to the left will eventually reach the Pacific Ocean. We’ve hiked into the higher country to collect data on whitebark pine, a foundational five-needle pine with an ecological story that is both fascinating and worrisome.

[Right] Hiking to the next data collection spot along Montana's Continental Divide Trail. Photo: Greta Hoffman

I look east to the Rocky Mountain Front and the expansive plains that follow. The stark horizon interrupted only by Square Butte over 40 miles away in the distance. To the west, the teeming peaks of the Scapegoat Wilderness shine, and the occasional snowfields glint bright white in the evening glow.

Alongside my comrade, Lily, and Wilderness Society Research Ecologists Travis Belote and Wendy Loya, I stand atop the Continental Divide Trail at Lewis and Clark Pass, elevation 6,400 feet.

[Left] The full moon rises above Lewis and Clark Pass and the Continental Divide Trail in the Helena National Forest, Montana. Photo: Greta Hoffman

It was at this very spot, over 200 years ago, that Meriwether Lewis’s half of the expedition crossed the divide on their return trip home.

However, unlike many of the other places along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail today, there is not another soul in sight. No pavement, no traffic—it is the only roadless pass on the entire Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and also one of the only places on the trail where grizzly bears still roam. Other than the radio towers in the distance and the obvious logging scars in a few hillsides, it isn’t difficult to imagine the pure amazement Lewis and Clark experienced traveling this pass.

[Right] Lewis and Clark Pass, one of the few roadless section of the historic trail, from the Continental Divide Trail. Photo: Greta Hoffman

The historical significance of the place is not lost on us, but we’re here to collect data on how many whitebark pine trees have died in recent years from a nonnative fungus, white pine blister rust.

Whitebark pine is a tree species of timberlines, only found at higher elevations, and is considered a keystone species and a foundation of the ecosystem. Whitebark pine is a valuable food source for local animals, including grizzly bears that forage for their pine nuts as a significant source of fat and calories. Clark’s nutcrackers collect its pine nuts and cache them in the soil, with the intention of revisiting the food later. When they do not return for the feast, the nuts will germinate and grow into new trees. 

[Left] It is hard to tell whitebark pine from the other five needle pine of the area, limber pine. We study characteristics of both trees while on the trail to figure out how to best distinguish the species. Photo: Greta Hoffman

Our data collection reveals high levels of whitebark pine death in this landscape. Climate change models suggest that whitebark pine may experience further stressors and may continue to decline in the future. Only time – and more data collection – will tell whether whitebark pine will go the way of the American chestnut and become functionally extinct or whether the species will persist in this corner of the Crown of the Continent. 

[Right] Dead whitebark pine, probably killed by a nonnative blister rust fungus. Photo: Greta Hoffman

As we contemplate how little the landscape here has changed since Meriwether Lewis and his party crossed the continental divide a little over 200 years ago, we also consider changes that will surely come over the next 200 years. Our hope is that our grandchildren’s grandchildren might experience this pass as Lewis saw it - as a forest of whitepark pine trees with squawking Clark’s nutcrackers.

[Left] Our team of field ecologists, ready to hit the trail for a backcountry trip to sample whitebark pine and ponder the historical significance of the landscape. Photo: Greta Hoffman

Greta Hoffman is a rising sophomore currently studying Ecology and Organismal Biology at the University of Montana in Missoula. She hails from Helena, Montana, and likes to hike with her mom, fly fish with her dad, cook, go camping, run and hang out with family and friends.