Plants of the Rocky Mountain Front

A Conversation with Dave Hanna, Crown of the Continent Director

Dave Hanna is the Crown of the Continent Director for The Nature Conservancy in Montana. He first came to Montana in 1992 to take a seasonal job with the Conservancy on the Rocky Mountain Front. He’s lived here and worked for us ever since. He’s the past-president of the Montana Native Plant Society and our resident expert on the local flora. We recently had a conversation about the plant life on the Rocky Mountain Front.

What drew your interest to plants?

Dave Hanna:

Growing up on a farm, I’ve always been interested in plants, but it was an opportunity to work with Montana botanist Peter Lesica, early in my career, that really opened my eyes to the plants around me. Living here, I also got more and more interested in biogeography, trying to understand why different plants occur in certain places but not others.

What’s special about the plant communities on the Rocky Mountain Front?

Dave Hanna:

The sheer diversity of species here makes it special. That diversity is partly a result of the large variability of conditions such as geology, climate, and topography here. The Front is also at the juncture of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, and that intersection of plant communities is another reason why we see so many different species. A third of all plant species found in Montana occur just around Pine Butte Preserve. That percentage jumps to more than half when you consider the entire Rocky Mountain Front.

We often talk about the wildlife on the Front, and it can be easy to overlook the plants.

Dave Hanna:

Yes, but part of why animals like grizzlies do well here is because of the vegetation. The majority of their diet is plants, and they thrive here because of that great diversity of plant foods. They aren’t dependent on just one species, so for instance if one year the chokecherry crop isn’t so good, they can feed on other berries like serviceberry or thorny buffaloberry. Then there are all the grassland birds found here. They depend on large intact sweeps of native grassland. We’ve worked with partners to conserve large expanses of grassland habitat that benefits plants, animals and the local ranching community.

I understand that the fen on the preserve is the largest on the Front, and perhaps the state. How significant is it?

Dave Hanna:

There are thirteen species of concern in the wetlands at Pine Butte that are considered rare in Montana. Some of the plants here are at the southernmost extent of their range, found more commonly in wetter places farther north in Canada. And having such a large wetland in this arid landscape makes it a magnet for wildlife as well.

Another really notable feature of the Front are the limber pines. What can you tell us about them?

Dave Hanna:

To me, they’re a window that lets you look back at the forces that occurred on the landscape over a long time. Many of these trees are centuries old. The old fire-scarred, gnarled trunks have stories to tell. They’ve been shaped by fire and wind and buffalo. They’ve endured drought. They speak of times when Blackfeet hunted buffalo here.

What are the threats to native plants on the Front?

Dave Hanna:

The biggest is non-native invasive species. But the Conservancy has worked alongside landowners, agencies and other organizations for decades to combat invasives, so the Front is in pretty good shape. We also have some pretty long term data sets looking at biological controls for leafy spurge, and have seen some great results.

You’ve put in a quarter century with the Conservancy, what keeps you at it?

Dave Hanna:

I like being able to do things that make a difference for the land – and the plants, animals, and people that live here.

Crown of the Continent

The Crown of the Continent is a 10-million acre mosaic of habitat where wildlife such as grizzly bears, lynx and wolverines still roam. Since 1997, TNC has purchased more than half a million acres within the Crown—reconnecting the fragmented landscape for the wildlife and people whose lives and livelihoods it enriches.

Want to support our conservation work in this region? Consider making a charitable contribution.



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