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Community Field Guide

Scientific Name:
Schizachyrium scoparium - Muhlenbergia cuspidata Herbaceous Vegetation

Common Name:
Little bluestem - plains muhly Herbaceous Vegetation

Photo by S.V. Cooper

Community Description

This little bluestem - plains muhly prairie type is found in the northern Great Plains of the United States. Stands occur on easily eroded, loamy, well-drained soils derived from shales. Vegetative cover is somewhat sparse. Vegetation is dominated by the midgrass species Schizachyrium scoparium, Muhlenbergia cuspidata, Elymus lanceolatus, Koeleria macrantha, Pascopyrum smithii, Hesperostipa comata (= Stipa comata), and Aristida purpurea var. longiseta (= Aristida longiseta). Shrubs are rare. Gutierrezia sarothrae is the only common dwarf-shrub. Forb richness is high, but total canopy cover is low. Phlox hoodii and Linum perenne are common species. Litter and bare ground average 50% and 15% canopy cover, respectively.

This association is found in a small region of central Montana, on the eastern edge of a mountainous uplift. The climate is semi-arid and continental in its characteristics. Winters are very cold, while summers tend to be hot. Much of the annual precipitation falls from May to September; mean annual precipitation is about 38 cm. This association occurs on moderately steep slopes of the uplands, between 3400 and 4200 feet elevation (Jorgensen 1979). Geologic substrate is the Kootenai Formation, which is a ledge-forming Cretaceous formation of metamorphosed sandstone layers interbedded with red shale. Soils are derived from the red shale component of this formation. They are weakly developed, loam- or silt-textured, non-alkaline, well-drained and subject to rapid erosion. There is a significant component of stones in the profile. Most stands suffer from some erosion and may occur where there is above average snow accumulation.

This is an herbaceous association dominated by perennial bunch grasses, the most abundant being Schizachyrium scoparium and Muhlenbergia cuspidata. Other grasses common (to codominant) in some stands include Elymus lanceolatus, Koeleria macrantha, Hesperostipa comata (= Stipa comata), Nassella viridula (= Stipa viridula), Aristida purpurea var. longiseta (= Aristida longiseta), and Pascopyrum smithii. Total graminoid cover averages 50-60%. There are a large number of forb species present, but none are abundant. The more common species include Phlox hoodii, Cerastium beeringianum, Tetraneuris acaulis, and Linum perenne. Total forb cover is less than 20%. There is an open, low-shrub layer, with 10-15% cover. The dwarf-shrub Gutierrezia sarothrae and the taller Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus are the most common. Juniperus horizontalis is infrequent but locally common. Lichens are common on the ground surface, having an average of 8% cover. Litter and bare ground average 50% and 15% cover, respectively (Jorgensen 1979).

This little bluestem - plains muhly prairie type is found in the northern Great Plains of the United States, in Montana and possibly southern Saskatchewan and North Dakota. Jorgensen (1979) reports that this type occurs only in association with a red shale stratum of the Kootenai Formation in southeast Fergus County, Montana. This type may occur in southern Saskatchewan (J. Belcher pers. comm.) and western North Dakota (D. Lenz pers. comm.), but further research is needed to verify occurrences in these other areas.

Jorgensen (1979) states that soils in this type are subject to rapid erosion.

Global Rank: G3? State Rank: S2

Global Rank Comments:
Limited geographic range and ecological tolerance keep this type rare.

Community References


M.S. Reid, mod. P. Lesica 9-97

Bourgeron and Engelking 1994, Driscoll et al. 1984, Hansen and Hoffman 1988, Hansen et al. 1984, Harvey 1982, Jorgensen 1979, UNESCO 1973

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This information is from the:
Montana Natural Heritage Program
Montana State Library--Natural Resource Information System
1515 East Sixth Ave., Helena, MT 59620-1800
406 444-5354