M331 Southern Rocky Mountain Steppe--Open Woodland--Coniferous Forest--Alpine Meadow Province

Middle and southern Rocky Mountains, 102,300 mi2 (265,000 km2)

Land-surface form.--The Rocky Mountains are rugged glaciated mountains as high as 14,000 ft (4,300 m). Local relief is between 3,000 ft (900 m) and 7,000 ft (2,100 m). Several sections have intermontane depressions ("parks") with floors less than 6,000 ft (1,800 m) in altitude. Many high-elevation plateaus composed of dissected, horizontally layered rocks lie in Wyoming and Utah.

Spruce-fir forest at the upper timberline of Roaring Fork in the Sawatch Range, Colorado. Spruce-fir forest at the upper timberline of Roaring Fork in the Sawatch Range, Colorado. (Photo: U.S. Geological Survey.)

Climate.--The climate is a temperate semiarid steppe regime with average annual temperatures ranging from 35 to 45F (2 to 7C) in most of the region, but reaching 50F (10C) in the lower valleys. Climate is influenced by the prevailing west winds and the general north-south orientation of the mountain ranges. East slopes are much drier than west slopes; individual mountain ranges have similar east-west slope differences regionwide. Winter precipitation varies considerably with altitude (see Appendix 2, climate diagram for Pikes Peak, Colorado). Total precipitation is moderate, but greater than on the plains to the east and west. In the highest mountains, a considerable part of annual precipitation is snow, although permanent snowfields and glaciers cover only relatively small areas. Bases of these mountains receive only 10 to 20 in (260 to 510 mm) of rainfall per year. At higher elevations, annual precipitation increases to 40 in (1,020 mm), and average temperatures fall.

Vegetation.--A striking feature of the region is its pronounced vegetational zonation, controlled by a combination of altitude, latitude, direction of prevailing winds, and slope exposure. Generally, the various zones are at higher altitudes in the southern part of the province than in the northern, and they extend downward on eastfacing and northfacing slopes and in narrow ravines and valleys subject to cold air drainage. The uppermost (alpine) zone is characterized by alpine tundra and the absence of trees. Directly below it is the subalpine zone, dominated in most places by Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. Below this area lies the montane zone, characterized by ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, which frequently alternate--ponderosa pine dominates on lower, drier, more exposed slopes, and Douglas-fir is predominant in higher, moister, more sheltered areas.

After fire in the subalpine zone and in the upper part of the montane zone, the original forest trees are usually replaced by aspen or lodgepole pine.

Grass, often mixed with sagebrush, regularly covers the ground in open ponderosa pine forests and some treeless areas. These treeless openings are usually small, and they often alternate (depending on slope exposure) with ponderosa pine forest. At the lower edge of the montane zone, they may open onto the adjacent grass and sagebrush belt.

Below the montane belt is the foothill (woodland) zone. Dry rocky slopes in this zone often have a growth of shrubs in which mountain-mahogany and several kinds of scrub oak are conspicuous. Along the border of the Colorado Plateau Province, ponderosa pine and pinyon-juniper associations frequently alternate, depending on slope exposure.

Unforested parks are a conspicuous feature of this province. Many are dominated by grasses, but some are covered largely by sagebrush and other shrubs, such as antelope bitterbrush.

Soils.--In the Rocky Mountains, soil orders occur in zones corresponding to vegetation, ranging from Mollisols and Alfisols in the montane zone to Aridisols in the foothill zone. In addition, because of steep slopes and recent glaciation, there are areas of Inceptisols.

Fauna.--Common large mammals include elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, bobcat, beaver, porcupine, and black bear. Grizzly bear and moose inhabit the province's northern portions. Small mammals include mice, squirrels, martens, chipmunks, mountain cottontails, and bushytail woodrats.

Common birds include the mountain bluebird, chestnut-backed chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, ruby-crowned kinglet, pygmy nuthatch, gray jay, Steller's jay, and Clark's nutcracker. Rosy finches are found in the high snowfields. Blue and ruffed grouse are the most common upland game birds. Hawks and owls inhabit most of the region.