Botanical Guide

A Botanical Guide to Special Places in the Pryor Mountains

Jennifer Lyman, Ph.D., Botany
Kelsey Flathers and Simone Durney, Students


Lupine, arrowleaf balsamroot and Wyoming big sagebrush on slope of Big Pryor Mountain. (photo, S. Durney) Lupine, arrowleaf balsamroot and Wyoming big sagebrush on slope of Big Pryor Mountain. (photo, S. Durney)
The plant-life of the Pryor Mountains is a botanist’s delight and a sadly undervalued part of Montana’s natural landscape. The South Pryor Mountains alone offer 5,000 feet of vertical relief that supports more than 25 plant communities (interacting associations of plant species populations). These communities extend from alluvial fans that support varied shrublands to cushion plant grasslands above 8,000 feet. Several plant communities, (Utah Juniper/mountain mahogany; Nuttall’s saltbush/Budsage; and Limber pine/Utah Juniper), are designated as globally rare by the Montana Natural Heritage Program (MNHP). And the North Pryor region, in the Punchbowl area, offers a beautiful example of aspen forest encompassing an understory of native shrubs and forbs. The aspen stands open onto sagebrush meadows with views of the rugged limestone cliffs of the Pryor’s northern front.

The students (Flathers and Durney) quickly grew to love the Pryor Mountain range because of its spectacular topography, the diversity of plant species, and the unusual level of rare and endemic» species and plant communities. When Dr. Lyman proposed that they use their studies to create a Botanical Guide to Special Places in the Pryor Mountains, they jumped at the opportunity. The purpose of the guide is to encourage exploration of the Pryor Mountains in much the same way that naturalists have observed the world around them for hundreds of years—to observe closely, to connect plant life to the environment in which it thrives, and to appreciate the variety of life that subsists in landscapes shaped and reshaped by millions of years of geologic change.

We have created this botanical guide using the MNHP plant community designations, because this ecological approach will help the user to look closely at plant associations, species abundance, diversity of species and life forms (tree, shrub, perennial and annual herbaceous forbs, and grasses). A keen observer will see and understand in what ways each species interacts with its abiotic environment including geology, soils, topography, elevation, aspect (cardinal direction a slope faces) and microclimate. Understanding the structure and function of a particular plant community at one site will help avid naturalists to locate the same community at other places with similar ecological conditions.

Happy plant hunting! You will want to bring along a hand lens for looking closely at flower structure, a GPS, plant identification books, and your camera.

The Project»

Download a Printable version of this guide.»

Nine Special Places

The nine Botanical Plant Communities (Click below for details.) are beautiful representatives of some of the plant communities of the Pryors. We hope our descriptions will help you to appreciate each community and to visit them in all seasons to understand their natural history and to contribute to your knowledge of the Pryor Mountains.

Click for detailed information about each of the NINE PLANT COMMUNITIES

» This is the heart of this Botanical Guide to the Pryors. Find detailed information about nine (9) different plant communities in the Pryors. How to get there. Plant Lists. More….

Note about Plant Lists and Common Names»

Plant Communities

Plant community: a group of plant populations that occur together and interact with one another directly or indirectly. Plant ecologists typically identify or name plant communities by two dominant plant life forms. By life forms of vascular plants is meant simply that they are trees, shrubs, forbs (annual or perennial broad-leaved herbaceous plant), or grasses. Typically there are dozens of other species in the community that are adapted to that habitat and community of plants. Introduction of non-native species can disrupt this ecological balance.

For example, one of the plant communities that we recommend that you explore and study is the Artemisia pedatifida (Birdfoot Sage)/Agropyron spicatum (Bluebunch wheatgrass) community. These two species have the most abundant populations where they occur along Gyp Springs Road. They associate closely in space and time with one another. And they likely interact through ecological processes such as soil retention, snow or precipitation interception, and root functions that may be competitive or possible cooperative.

We have named the botanical places that we describe by their plant community designations. While we have provided the directions to a particular example of each plant community, you will be able to find other examples once you observe closely the ecological conditions of aspect, elevation, soil type and structure, and the elements of the particular microclimate.

Focusing on landscapes using a plant community approach is important because plant communities are one of the clearest ways to assess ecosystem structure and function. Plants and animals depend on the environmental complexity of a particular plant community. DeVelice and Lesica suggest that “maintaining community diversity is the best insurance that small, difficult-to-inventory organisms that contribute the most to ecosystem function and biological diversity are not lost.” (1)» For that reason monitoring of a select subset of plant communities in the Pryor Mountains provides one more tool for effective ecosystem management and conservation. The plant community names that we use are those from the 2002 List of Ecological Communities for Montana prepared by the Montana Natural Heritage Program.

Important Plant Area

The South Pryor Mountain and adjoining landscape is so botanically rich that the Montana Native Plant Society (MNPS) designated 114,950 acres as an Important Plant Area (IPA).
“The Goal of the Montana Native Plant Society’s Important Plant Areas Program is to identify the most important sites for plant conservation across Montana using consistent criteria. An Important Plant Area supports an exceptional population of one or more globally rare plants or an exceptional assemblage of plants rare or threatened in Montana.”
The boundaries of the Pryor Mountain IPA encompass nineteen vascular plant species of concern» and one lichen species of concern. Also included are five globally rare species endemic» to the north end of the Bighorn Basin in Montana and Wyoming.
More information on the South Pryors IPA….

Diverse Habitats

How plant communities in the Pryor Mountains are distributed over the landscape results from the geologic history of the region, climate influences including rainfall, sunlight, and temperature, and the migratory pathways and mechanisms for seed dispersal from other places.


The geology pages provide an excellent overview of the geologic events that have created the soils that affect plant species occurrences. Nutrient availability and soil texture (the percentage of sands, silts, and clays) contribute greatly to the ability of particular plant species to persist. Soils derived from Madison limestone, for example, differ greatly in their nutrient and water-holding capacity from those of Chugwater origin. Erosion slopes will harbor species quite different from places where the soils have remained for long periods of time.

Topographic Effects

Topographic position influences the amount of rainfall, sunlight, temperature extremes, and migratory pathways for seed dispersal. For example, the lower slopes on the south side of the Pryor Mountains receive only an average of 7 to 8 inches of precipitation per year, while the north-facing slopes collect about 18 to 20 inches of precipitation. The aspect, the cardinal direction of a slope face, determines the amount of sunlight and the temperature regime of the soil. There are dramatic differences in temperature, sunlight, precipitation, and wind exposure on the northern and southern slopes of the Pryors.


Variability exists within the slope faces of the Pryor Mountains resulting from the canyons, water-carved gullies, and varieties of rock types. These small pockets of differing moisture, soil, sunlight, and temperature regimes also influence the distribution of plant communities.

Seed Dispersal Pathways

Plant species on the southern slopes of the Pryor Mountains show affinities to Great Basin plant communities because of climate similarities. There are topographic connections linking the southern Pryors with the Wyoming Big Horn Basin and south into the Great Basin. Therefore we find species in the Pryors that represent the most northern extension of the Great Basin plant communities. Utah Juniper, scattered throughout the southern Pryors, is an excellent example of the Great Basin region.

Suggestions for plant book resources»

Return to the main Botany Page.

A species is called “endemic” to an area when it grows (naturally) ONLY in that area. This term is often mistakenly thought to mean “abundant” or even “epidemic.” An endemic species may be either rare or abundant, but it grows naturally only in that area – and nowhere else.

This particular project came about as part of a discussion between Rocky Mountain College Botany Professor Jennifer Lyman, Ph.D., and two of her students, Kelsey Flathers and Simone Durney, who worked in the Rocky Mountain College Herbarium for all of four college years. Dr. Lyman served as their advisor for a more technical study of the Pryors that involved establishing long-term monitoring sites in nine plant communities. The students developed a sampling protocol to collect data about the diversity and abundance of plant species, the level of incursion of non-native and noxious weed species, and the amount of human disturbance at each site. They hope that Rocky Mountain College students will repeat the sampling process every five years to provide the federal agency managers with information that will inform their conservation efforts. Funding for the project came from the Rocky Mountain College Herbarium Fund and private donors.

This project set up baseline monitoring to gather information about the percent composition of species along with a complete species list of the nine plant communities. Monitoring will continue every three to five years to ensure that invasive species are kept in check and disturbance is kept to a minimum to allow the communities to proliferate.

The results of the 2012 establishment of long-term monitoring sites and the first round of data collected as part of a Rocky Mountain College Herbarium project have provided most of the information for this guide.

For each plant community we have provided a plant list of all the species we found on our visits. The listed species were found within 50 to 100 meters of the GPS location given for the community. It is likely that additional species can be found at other times of year or other years.

Clicking on a scientific name in the lists will link to the Montana Field Guide (MTNHP) with more information and photos for most species. The range maps in the Field Guide are quite incomplete.

Common names for plants are problematic. Often a species has several different common names. In some cases the same common name is used for several different species.

(1993) in their report on the Plant Community Classification for Vegetation on BLM Lands, Pryor Mountains, Carbon County, Montana (Montana Natural Heritage Program publication for BLM)
The phrase “species of concern” is used by the Montana Natural Heritage Program to refer to plant species that are rare or threatened to become rare by natural or human impacts and have declining numbers that could result in the loss of the species altogether.
A species is called “endemic” to an area when it grows (naturally) ONLY in that area. This term is often mistakenly thought to mean “abundant” or even “epidemic.” An endemic species may be either rare or abundant, but it grows naturally only in that area – and nowhere else.

Donald Anthony Schiemann’s Wildflowers of Montana, Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, 2005 is an excellent resource with color photos of many plants herbaceous plants that occur in the Pryor Mountains.

Peter Lesica’s Manual of Montana Vascular Plants, Brit Press, 1700 University Drive, Fort Worth, Texas, 76107, 2012 ( is the best technical plant manual.

Thomas Elpel’s Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification published by HOPS Press, LLC, 2013. The book emphasizes family characteristics for plant identification. Elpel also has written several botany books for children that emphasize plants used for survival and medicine.