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Yellowstone’s Madison River: Fire, Geomorphology, Elk, and History

Yellowstone’s Madison River: Fire, Geomorphology, Elk, and History
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Last year, I got to visit Yellowstone National Park….finally! I was actually at a geology conference, which was really empty. I soon discovered the emptiness came from everyone spending a lot of time at Yellowstone. So I went to where the real conference was. On my first trip there from Bozeman, Montana, I entered through the West Entrance and drove alongside the Madison River. It was incredibly stunning. It had great geology, stunning scenery, bison….and a really sad story on an interpretive panel brought me to tears.

Here’s a bit about that trip along the Madison River. This small 14-mile portion of its path features the 1988 fire and its impact on the landscape, discusses some of its geomorphic features, shows you some wildlife, and features a sad chapter in Nez Perce history as well as a little road history.

But First, the Madison River as a Whole

Madison River about halfway between Madison Junction and the West Entrance

Madison River about halfway between Madison Junction and the West Entrance

The Madison River’s headwaters are born at Madison Junction in the western side of the park, at the confluence of the Gibbons and Firehole Rivers. The stream then flows westward towards Yellowstone National Park’s West Entrance, where it leaves the park and Wyoming, flowing northwest inside of Montana, passing through Hebgen Lake. It eventually joins with the Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers to form the Missouri River near Three Forks, Montana. Montana has a park in the area for it near Interstate 5 within Three Forks: Missouri Headwaters State Park.

1988 Fire

Remnants of fire just outside of Yellowstone National Park's West Entrance

Remnants of fire just outside of Yellowstone National Park’s West Entrance

Like a lot of places in the west, burned trees stand everywhere along the Madison River. Some don’t stand. They lie sadly strewn along the talus slopes. Some lie strewn on soil slopes, which are moving. I’d stay away from those.

In 1988, the fires of Yellowstone National Park combined to form the largest wildfire in park history: 793,880 acres (36% of the park) were affected (Young 2007). Although a lot was lost, fire is an important part of the American West’s ecosystem. Fire allows seeds to propogate and nourishes the landscape. In the case of lodgepole pine, like in the photo below along the Madison River (just east of the West Entrance – just inside the park), the fire burned the sticky resin in the pine cones, releasing lots of seeds. The seeds then fell into the newly formed ash. The ash nourished the seeds, which grew into seedlings (Two Ribbons Trail Interpretative Sign ca. 2008). The photo below shows an old burned tree standing next to a bunch of seedlings, which sprouted by the 1988 fire.

This tree stands alongside the Madison River. The fire that killed the tree also brought to life the seedlings it stands next to.

This tree stands alongside the Madison River on the Two Ribbons Trail. The fire that killed the tree also brought to life the seedlings it stands next to.

Geomorphology on the Upper Madison River

U-shaped valley of the Madison River just east of Two Ribbons Trail in West Yellowstone.

U-shaped valley of the Madison River just east of Two Ribbons Trail in West Yellowstone.

And of course! Geomorphology! Although it is everywhere, it sure is hard to find information on it along the Madison River in Yellowstone specifically. People seem to focus on other things. It will probably drop from the sky in leaps and bounds once I post this. However, here is a bit that I did come across.

Several stages of glaciation occurred within Yellowstone National Park. Near the West Entrance, the Madison River flows, in part, through a U-shaped valley. Glaciers carved U-shaped valleys along there paths. It should be noted, however, that the river meandered in and out of glacial moraine territories, sometimes averting them completely. The basin of the Madison River in the West Yellowstone area shows several moraines. This indicates that glaciation affected the basin.

  • Moraine: a large mass of glacial till that accumulates alongside the edges of or at the end of a glacier.
    • Terminal Moraine: a large mass of glacial till that accumulates at the end of a glacier.
    • Lateral Moraine: a large mass of glacial till that accumulates alongside the glacier’s edges.
  • Glacial till: unsorted sediments carried by the glacier. They are deposited usually as the glacier recedes.

Some of the moraines apparently fill old river valleys, indicating river and creek displacements (not only the Madison River but streams and creeks nearby). A terminal moraine outside of the park looks as though it advanced down Beaver Creek and blocked the Madison River. This glacial dam ponded the Madison River all the way back into West Yellowstone, possibly flooring the basin with the fine, stratified, rhyolitic sands and gravels that bed it today (Alden 1953:177-179).

 

Talus flanks quite a bit of the Madison River within Yellowstone, particularly on its south side.

Talus flanks quite a bit of the Madison River within Yellowstone, particularly on its south side.

Not only that, but talus slopes flank the Madison River, particularly on its south side.

  • Talus: rock fragment pile at base of cliff or steep slope (their source). … a type of colluvium
    • Scree: the loose rock (also known as talus) that forms a talus slope … a type of colluvium
  • Colluvium: loose deposit of sharp-edged rock (or soil) debris

Elk and Bison

The Madison Elk Herd grazes in the open meadow of the Madison River floodplain. The burned lodgepole pine forest from the 1988 fire stands behind them.

The Madison Elk Herd grazes in the open meadow of the Madison River floodplain. The burned lodgepole pine forest from the 1988 fire stands behind them.

The Madison River within West Yellowstone has its own elk herd: the Madison Elk Herd. The 1988 fires affected them a lot. It burned the forest, opening the area up. This fire removed a lot of lodgepole pine forest, which they used to shelter newborns during calving season. However, the open meadows, like in the photo above, provide lush nourishment (Madison Elk Herd Interpretive Panel n.d.).

Bison have lived continuously in Yellowstone National Park since prehistoric times. While Yellowstone Bisons’ range is limited to the park and some adjacent areas in Montana, it used to stretch approximately 7,720 square miles (20,000 km2) around the headwaters of both the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers. After North America’s bison population was almost wiped out by 1900, a small herd of 23 bison remained in the Pelican Valley of central Yellowstone. In 1902, 18 female bison were brought in to the park from Montana and Texas, creating another herd. Stewardship, relocation of bison within the park, and continued importations from outside the park greatly increased the population and number of herds. Now, the area around the Madison River in West Yellowstone is part of their Fall through Winter habitat. They primarily eat grasses, sedges, and other like plants (National Park Service 2015).

Bison in Madison River valley enjoying some grass.

Bison in Madison River valley enjoying some grass.

History

Like many river valleys, people traveled along the Madison River Valley. Both Indians and European-Americans passed through hunting and gathering, and trading, sometimes together. In 1863, gold seekers traveled through, though it was not their destination. Later, very sadly, the American military pursued a large party of Nez Perce through the Madison River valley in West Yellowstone. The military attacked several times along the journey and overtook the Nez Perce when they were only 40 miles from the Canadian border. It was part of the Nez Perce War (National Park Service Nez Perce War: Journey Through Yellowstone Interpretive Panel No Date). This is a dark chapter in American history, particularly as the American broke the treaty with the Nez Perce repeatedly beforehand, and the Nez Perce helped Lewis and Clark during their expedition of 1805 and 1806.

On August 23, 1877, 600 Nez Perce camped in the forest near this location.

On August 23, 1877, 600 Nez Perce camped in the forest near this location.

References

Alden, William C.
1953 Physiography and Glacial Geology of Western Montana and Adjacent Areas. In Geological Survey Professional Paper 231: a Study of Glacial Features in the Intermontane Valleys and the Drainage Area of the Upper Missouri and Columbia Rivers. United States Government Printing Office, Washington.

National Park Service
2015 Bison Information Continued. On Yellowstone National Park webpage. Electronic document, http://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/bisoninfo.htm, accessed July 5, 2015.

Young, Linda K.
2007 Wildland Fire Education and Outreach Case Studies: Flames of Controversy: Interpreting the Yellowstone Fires of 1988. In Wildland Fire web page. Electronic document, http://web.archive.org/web/20070623130522/http://www.nifc.gov/preved/comm_guide/wildfire/fire_26c.html, accessed July 5, 2015.


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