Tucked away in the southwest corner of North Dakota, a few miles north of Marmarth, on the west side of the Little Missouri River, is a stand of limber pine. That’s a little out of place! Limber pine is a species of the Rockies, where it ranges from British Columbia and Alberta south to California, Arizona, and New Mexico. However, there are a few outlier populations, and this North Dakota stand is one of them. Their nearest neighbors are over 150 miles away in the Black Hills. Their next closest neighbors are over 250 miles away in Montana’s Pryor Mountains.
The stand covers roughly 200 acres and is known to be about 600 years old. There are several young trees, and the old timers are over 200 years old. It seems they are doing quite well out here on the North Dakota plains.
Their origin, however, is debatable. Some have speculated that they are a relict, but studies done on these pines do not support that hypothesis due to a lack of ancestral trees, a “single point of origin,” and a young age structure. A more likely explanation for their existence is propagation, accidental or perhaps intentional, by Native Americans around 1300.
It is interesting to note that the limber pines weren’t officially discovered until the 1940′s during a rangeland survey. There is an interesting human interest story related to this discovery. Dick Williams, the person who discovered the limber pines, spent his career working for the Soil Conservation Service here in North Dakota. When he retired, and I use that term very loosely, he fulfilled his desire of obtaining his doctorate degree by going back to college at NDSU’s botany department. He was awarded a small office in which to work, and kept busy with a variety of projects from the 1970′s through the millennium, including conducting rangeland inventories for the North Dakota State Land Department. No doubt some of you have met him. Dick has passed away, but he is still one of the most kind, interesting, and enjoyable people I have had the honor to know. Every time I see or hear something about the limber pines I think of him. That was his little piece of Natural North Dakota.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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