Montana Climate Science

We are pleased to release the Extension Climate Science Team’s first factsheet on climate science.

We plan to release several other factsheets in this series in the months ahead. In the meantime you can visit the Team’s website to learn more.



Is that “moss” killing my tree?

Is that “moss” killing my tree? This is a common question. And since we see a lot of this “moss” on dying or dead trees it is logical assumption that the “moss” is killing the tree.


Lichen hanging from a dying Douglas-fir.


Several lichen species calling this trunk home.

First the “moss” is actually a lichen of the genus UsneaUsnea has fun common names of Old Man’s Beard, beard lichen or tree moss.

So is the lichen killing my tree? Good question – The lichen is not killing the tree it just growing well on the exposed scaffolding of the dead tree.  Many lichens grow rapidly when exposed to full sunlight and there is typically plenty of sunlight on a dead or dying tree’s branches and trunk.

Lichens are not parasites. They are actually two organisms living in a symbiotic relationship: a fungus and an alga. A symbiotic relationship is when two organisms live together and mutually benefit. The algae use the sun to photosynthesize (produce food) while the fungus provides the support structure and water and mineral transport system.

So what is killing my trees? A typical but sometimes frustrating answer is “it depends”.  Drought, disease, overcrowding are options.  However, other options that might leave us feeling a bit more embarrassed are improper planting depth (typically too deep); broken irrigation systems; and disturbance of roots from new roads, foundations, etc.  A good place to start to figure out the puzzles is calling your County Extension Agent or your City Arborist.


Wetland Videos and Final Thoughts

First, I’m happy to debut the wetland educational video series that I’ve been working on for the last two months. These short videos illustrate the amazing values that wetlands provide society.


Second, I’m sad to announce that this is my last day of my temporary position with MSU Extension. It’s been a wonderful experience and I want to share a few parting thoughts.

I was drawn to this position by its potential to engage people in natural resource management through hands-on experience. In my eyes, raising public understanding is the most effective way I can address natural resource issues. Coordinating volunteers for WET showed me a new and exciting way to do this through citizen science. Volunteer programs provide excellent opportunities to connect people to local issues, raise community support for them, and provide personal learning experiences, all while increasing an organization’s capacity. As a volunteer, you experience the realities of an issue first-hand, get connected to people working to resolve them, and learn skills you never knew existed.

Volunteer citizen scientists head to a wetland survey site at Cherry River Fishing Access.

Volunteer citizen scientists head to a wetland survey at Cherry River Fishing Access.

During my time with MSU Extension I conducted dozens of wetland surveys in order to prepare the protocol for volunteers. I was already very familiar with natural resource management and conservation, but the surveys still changed the way I look at a landscape. For example, when looking at a road, I now can’t help but visualize the flow of water that it blocks, redirects, and channelizes through a culvert, likely adding sediment in the process. After training over 24 volunteers, leading six hikes, giving four presentations, writing nine blog posts, and creating a wetland video series, I could recite the values of wetlands in my sleep. But what mattered to me most was seeing other people learn these things too.

Our volunteers were students, parents, professionals, and retirees, but they all brought enthusiasm to the project. I was amazed by how much people enjoyed spending three hours in a wetland completing a complicated survey, but I think that the beauty of the survey is that it helps people see and think about things that they wouldn’t normally. Most residents love Gallatin County and want to do something good for it. Wetlands Environment Teams has been an excellent way for Extension to serve Gallatin County’s residents and for residents to serve the county.

I hope it continues to do so for years to come.

Wetland/riverine system at Porcupine Creek, first wetland I visited last May.

Wetland/riverine system at Porcupine Creek in October, the first wetland I visited last May.

If you’ve enjoyed these blog posts you can continue to follow my personal blog:

Video: American Dippers Part 2

One week after my first visit to the American Dipper nest I was back in the water, hoping to film some clumsy and adorable fledglings. Instead of going directly to the nest, I entered the creek downstream of it and began wading against the current. After some perilous crossing of slippery log jams, I came across the wonderful sight of an adult dipper hunting in the shallows. As she made several trips carrying food upstream and back, I was eventually led not to her nest, but to a young  fledgling waiting patiently on the shore.

A young American Dipper dreams of the next delicious beakful of wriggling aquatic invertebrates his mother will bring.

A well-camouflaged American Dipper fledgling dreams of the next delicious beakful of wriggling aquatic invertebrates his mother will bring.

Dipper fledglings are adorably helpless. For days they do little more than sit on a rock and wait for their parents to stuff food into their mouths. After finding the fledgling, I sat on the other side of the shore and watched him for 40 minutes as his mother tirelessly delivered bug after bug without a moment’s rest. In between feedings he seemed to grow despondent and lethargic, but each feeding seemed to liven his spirits and cause him to happily bounce, stretch, and preen. After 40 minutes he grew adventurous. He hopped of his rock and made feeble attempts at finding his own food in the shallows, reminding me of a hungry teenager who “cooks” whatever’s in the freezer when his mom is working late. Eventually, the dipper grew so bold as to hop and fly 40 yards upstream. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I really wish I had stayed put to see what his mother did when she arrived to find her chick gone. Did she drop her bugs, call out in distress, and hear with great relief the high-pitched trill of her chick upstream? Sadly, I’ll never know because I wandered off somewhere else to do something I don’t remember.

Nonetheless, I eventually located the fledgling, filmed a couple more feedings, and headed home. Finally,  I have the second dipper video:

Two things interested me about this trip. First, it was pretty clear that the adult was only feeding one fledgling. Sadly, I think the other four perished sometime after my previous visit. I don’t think it’s likely that the other siblings were resting elsewhere because I’ve seen American Dipper fledglings once before and they stuck together pretty closely. Second, I only saw one adult that day, whereas I frequently saw both feeding their young the week before. My guess is that the father left his mate to take care of the sole surviving chick, betting that if the two of them could take care of five young, she could take care of one. After watching her work, I bet she can too.

Landscape Diversity


Plains Pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha) at Missouri Headwaters State Park.

Back in July I was searching for wetlands at Missouri Headwaters State Park to add to our study. After trudging out one flooded cattail slough I realized that was tiptoeing around cacti. At first this seemed impossible; how could wetland and desert plants be growing just 30 feet away from each other? The answer: five feet in elevation.

Old river channels (note the banks on left and right) collect water and stay wetter than the rest of the land during the summer.

Old river channels (note the banks on left and right) collect water and stay wetter than the rest of the land during the summer.

A five foot difference in elevation is all it took to create an entirely different plant community. While most of Missouri Headwaters State Park is flat and dry, there are a few old river channels meandering through it. Carved out by the river years ago, these relic channels now collect water in the spring and retain it throughout the summer. The result is areas that are drastically wetter and botanically different from the rest of the park.

Rivers create habitat diversity when their

Over decades, rivers meander and leave behind old channels like scars on the landscape (right side of photo). The plant species in and around these channels are drastically different from each other. The cacti above were photographed in the upper right corner of this photo. (Image by Google Earth).

Why is this such a big deal? Because it means the park can support more species. Without these channels, the park would probably be devoid of dozens of plant species that only survive in the wet channels. Habitat diversity also provides more resources for wildlife such as places to drink, hunt, and nest. The channels are probably critical sources of water for wildlife during the late summer and likely provide breeding habitat for amphibians.

Most amphibians, like this Columbia Spotted Frog (Rana luteiventris), can only breed in wetlands that dry up in summer. The reason: fish eat frog eggs and tadpoles, but they can't survive in temporary wetlands.

Most amphibians, like this Columbia Spotted Frog (Rana luteiventris), can only breed in wetlands that dry up in summer. The reason: fish eat frog eggs and tadpoles, but they can’t survive in temporary wetlands.

Old river channels are just one of many sources of habitat diversity. Small wildfires, patches of rocky soil, slope aspect, treefalls, elevation, and grazing patterns can all promote biodiversity by creating changes in vegetation and habitat structure. As a landowner, keep the importance of habitat diversity in mind when managing your land. Consider techniques that create patch-like mosaics of habitat such as forest thinning or rotational grazing to provide a home for as many species as possible

Forest thinning promotes plant diversity by allowing more sunlight to reach the ground.

Forest thinning promotes plant diversity by allowing more sunlight to reach the ground.


Late Bloomers

It’s the time of year when, sadly, only a few wildflowers are still in bloom. As the summer rolls into August, the flowers that dazzled us in June and July wither and go to seed. This may be a small loss to us people, but there’s a huge group of animals that depend on blooming flowers for survival: insects.

Countless insects depend on flowers for nectar, pollen, and petals for food. They include bees, butterflies, beetles, wasps, tree crickets, ants, hemipterans,  thrips, and more. After plants, they are the the foundation of the food web. So what do they do in late summer when wildflowers are scarce?


Fortunately for our six-legged friends, there is a small group of flowers that bravely bloom in the heat and drought of August and September. In Gallatin County, the two most obvious are Dotted Blazingstar (Liatris punctata) and Stiff Goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida).

If you haven’t taken a close look at these plants, you’re missing out. Not just because they’re beautiful, but because their colorful petals often hold amazing dramas of sex and violence. In this post I am going to share one with you. First, let me introduce our protagonist: the American Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata americana).

The American Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata americana), yellow and black morphs (female and male?). Click to zoom in on the tubular mouthparts of the yellow individual, which is usually folded underneath the belly.

The American Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata americana), yellow and black morphs (female and male?). Note the  tubular mouthparts of the yellow individual, which are usually folded underneath the belly.

Look closely at any Stiff Goldenrod and you’re likely to find one or more of these bugs. Their bizarre shape and color help them  camouflage as they wait for pollinators to land for a drink. When pollinators come too close, ambush bugs snatch them up with their raptorial front legs (like those of a praying mantis). They subdue their prey, which are often much larger than themselves, by using their straw-shaped mouthparts to inject a paralyzing venom. Once subdued, ambush bugs contentedly sip the insides of their prey while resting on the flower.

An ambush bug consumes a moth it snatched off the flowers of Common Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

An ambush bug consumes a moth she snatched off the flowers of Common Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

Last August I was watching ambush bugs on Stiff Goldenrods at Mt. Ellis Trail when I noticed a female carrying around a small male. The males of some insect species have a habit of riding around on their mates as a way of preventing other males from mating with her. The reason for this soon became very clear to me. Without warning, a big, mean, alpha ambush bug came out of nowhere and tried to pull the little male right off the female! Click on the first photo below to watch the drama unfold:

Who knew the drama on a flower could match that of a nightclub! If you’re a landowner, consider planting late-bloomers on your property. These flowers do a whole lot more than just make our meadows look pretty. (Click here to read a story I wrote about another pollinator-ambushing insect.)

Two pairs of ambush bugs rest peacefully at sunset.

Two pairs of ambush bugs rest peacefully at sunset.