Lance Foster (hengruh) wrote,
Lance Foster

Constructing a Local Cosmology: Bioregions

It is vital when constructing a local cosmology to begin with your own bioregion and then ecosystems, and associated habitat types.


I refer the reader to United States, Canada and Mexico Bioregions/Ecoregions (

Nearctic: The Nearctic is one of the eight terrestrial ecozones dividing the Earth's land surface. The Nearctic ecozone covers most of North America, including Greenland and the highlands of Mexico. Southern Mexico, southern Florida, Central America, and the Caribbean islands are part of the Neotropic ecozone, together with South America. (

The other site that is of immense help in breaking the maps into more detailed maps for many (but not all) Nearctic bioregions is at

I will go through these steps using my locale of the Helena Valley which is defined by surrounding mountains (the Belts, the Continental Divide, and the Elkhorns/Boulder Batholith) in Montana, to give an example as to how this is done.

Within the Nearctic Ecozone are several bioregions. Montana is located in the Western North America bioregion:

The Western North America bioregion includes the Temperate coniferous forests of the coastal and mountain regions of southern Alaska, western Canada, and the western United States from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountains, as well as the cold-winter intermountain deserts and xeric shrublands and temperate grasslands and shrublands of the western United States. In terms of floristic provinces, it is represented by the Rocky Mountain Region. (

According to the map from Vanderbilt, the state of Montana is within five different bioregions: North Central Rockies forests, South Central Rockies forests, Montana valley and foothill grasslands, Northern short grasslands, and Wyoming Basin shrub steppe. The Helena Valley and its surrounding mountains is a place where three of these bioregions meet: North Central Rockies forests, South Central Rockies forests, and Montana valley and foothill grasslands. The Wikipedia article lists these under the following headings.

Temperate coniferous forests
North Central Rockies forests (Canada, United States) (WWF ecoregion NA0518)
South Central Rockies forests (United States) (WWF ecoregion NA0528)

Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands
Montana valley and foothill grasslands (United States) (WWF ecoregion NA0808)
Northern short grasslands (Canada, United States) (WWF ecoregion NA0811)

Deserts and xeric shrublands
Wyoming Basin shrub steppe (United States) [a small finger into s. Montana]

Once you have the bioregions for your area, in my case, three pertain to my area (North Central Rockies forests, South Central Rockies forests, and Montana valley and foothill grasslands), then you go to the summary at Vanderbilt in the right pane (there are further details in the window linked to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) numbers/site).

For the Helena area, I collated the following from the two sites (Vanderbilt and WWF):

1) Montana valley and foothill grasslands (WWF ecoregion NA0808)

The Montana Valley and Foothill Grasslands ecoregions occupies high valleys and foothill regions in the central Rocky Mountains of Montana and Alberta. The ecoregion occupies the Rocky Mountain Front, the uppermost flatland reaches of the Missouri River drainage, and extends into the Clark Fork-Bitterroot drainage of the Columbia River system....

Located in the Chinook belt, this ecoregion is characterized by dry, warm summers and mild winters. Mean annual temperature is 3.5°C, mean summer temperature is 14°C, and mean winter temperature is -8°C. Annual precipitation is approximately 425 mm (ESWG 1995).

The dominant vegetation type of this ecoregion varies somewhat, but consists mainly of wheatgrass (Agropyron spp.) and fescue (Festuca spp.). Certain valleys, notably the upper Madison, Ruby, and Red Rock drainages of southwestern Montana, are distinguished by extensive sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) communities as well. This is a reflection of semi-arid conditions caused by pronounced rain shadow effects and high elevation. Thus, near the Continental Divide in southwestern Montana, the ecoregion closely resembles the nearby Snake/Columbia shrub steppe...

Historically, heavy grazing by native herbivores–mainly bison (Bison bison)–was a major influence on most of this ecoregion. Periodic fires were also part of the disturbance regime. Some characteristic wildlife species of the Foothill Grasslands include white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana), coyote (Canis latrans), rabbit (Sylvilagus sp.), and grouse (Dendragapus sp.). The ecoregion supports endemic and relict fisheries: Westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus lewisi clarki), Yellowstone cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki), and fluvial arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus), a relict species from past glaciation.

The moderating effects of strong chinook winds results in a high diversity of vegetation communities in close proximity to one another. Certain sites contain relatively high levels of species richness. The Centennial Valley of southwestern Montana supports 487 vascular plant taxa (Mahr 1996). This valley supports large breeding populations of trumpeter swans (Cygnus bucinator) and sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Owing to its highly productive wetlands and juxtaposition to nearby montane habitats, the Centennial Valley may also be a candidate site for grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) recolonization of grassland habitat. This valley and other undeveloped valleys provide critical linkage habitat for grizzlies and other species moving between separate mountain ranges. Such areas also provide critical seasonal range for ungulates like elk (Cervus elaphus) and bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis).

Approximately 25 percent of the ecoregion remains as intact habitat. Less than 10 percent of the Canadian portion of this ecoregion is estimated to remain as intact habitat. Most of the ecoregion has been heavily altered. Domestic stock grazing, draining of wetlands, and conversion to row crops have been major anthropogenic changes to the ecoregion. Replacement of native species with exotic grasses, and noxious weed invasions, are serious problems.

More recently, development for residential homes has been a major threat to the ecoregion. Most of the tremendous population growth in the Rocky Mountains naturally ends up in this ecoregion, because it is largely privately-owned and lends itself to homebuilding.

Long-term environmental pollution from hard rock mining is a major concern. The ecoregion contains the nation's largest Superfund toxic waste site, stretching along the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers from the Continental Divide west to Missoula, Montana.

There are still major tracts of relatively intact habitat in the ecoregion. Along the East Front of the Rockies, from Great Falls to near Calgary, it is possible to find large tracts of grassland that have only experienced grazing. ...In the southwestern corner of Montana, there are vast expanses of undeveloped foothills and valley bottoms. In these remote areas, homebuilding is not an immediate large-scale threat, although some key riparian areas are being subdivided and developed. ...Rapid subdivision in some locales is contributing to wholesale fragmentation of habitat. With subdivision and homebuilding come new beachheads for exotic plant invasions, whether intentional or not. Homebuilding also leads to loss of travel routes and winter range for ungulates and other fauna....

Possible oil and gas development on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana and Alberta could have direct habitat impacts as well as impair connectivity between mountains and grasslands for ungulates, large predators, and other species.

Conversion of native habitat to homesites is a serious localized threat, although the boom appears to be levelling off. The loss of undeveloped riparian forest linkages across valley bottoms could have serious impacts on the long-term viability of sensitive species like the grizzly bear. Spread of exotic and noxious plant species could be a major long-term threat. Conversion of forest to grazing lands has a major impact on forest species.

Distinctiveness (1=highest,4=lowest): 4 (nationally important)
The region has a high diversity of vegetation communities in close proximity to each other. The undeveloped valleys provide critical links between mountain ranges, allowing for dispersal of large mammals, including Ursus acrtos (grizzly bear).

Conservation Status (1=most endangered, 5=most intact): 3 (vulnerable)
Approximately 25% of this ecoregion remains intact. Grazing, draining wetlands, conversion to row crops, and residential development are major threats. Subdivision for homes results in fragmentation and facilitates the introduction of invasive species.

Characteristic species:
Agropyron (wheatgrass) species
Fescuta (fescue) species
Artemisia (sagebrush) species
[The dominant tree in this region is either the Ponderosa Pine on dry, sunny slopes, or Cottonwood near rivers in valleys. -LF]

2. North Central Rockies Forests (WWF ecoregion NA0518)

The North Central Rockies Forest is an extensive montane ecoregion stretching roughly 600 miles from north to south. It is virtually contiguous from southeastern British Columbia and the extreme southwestern corner of Alberta to west-central Montana and south-central Idaho. The ecoregion comprises some of North America's best-known wildlands [including]...Montana's Glacier Park/Bob Marshall Wilderness complex. ...This ecoregion is distinct from the drier 'interior' to the west, the cooler boreal forests to the north, and the drier foothills to the east. [The Bob Marshall Wilderness complex connects to the Belt Mountains to the north of the Helena Valley area. -LF]

Climate varies extensively from west to east in the ecoregion, with the western edge experiencing the moderating effects of maritime influence and the eastern edge experiencing a harsher, more continental regime. Climate likewise varies from north to south, with local topographic change. The mean annual temperature in the Canadian portion of this ecoregion ranges from 3.5°C in the east to 5.5°C in the west. Mean summer temperature ranges from 12.5°C to 14.5°C, and mean winter temperature ranges from -3.5°C to -6.5°C, following the pattern of warmer temperatures in the west and cooler temperatures in the east. Mean annual precipitation ranges from 500-800 mm in the valleys, to over 1000 mm at higher elevations. In the southeast region, frequent chinooks moderate winter temperatures. Permafrost occurs in isolated patches in some alpine areas. Valleys are characterized by warm, showery summers and mild, snowy winters, and subalpine summers are cool, showery and prone to frosts, with moderately cold and snowy winters. Generally, the climate in the North Central Rockies Forests is a combination of alpine, subalpine and montane southern Cordilleran (ESWG 1995).

...This region is composed of folded sedimentary and volcanic strata and massive metamorphic rocks of Palaeozoic and Mesozoic age. Glaciation has shaped great valleys and filled them with glaciofluvial and morainal sediments (ESWG 1995).

The dominant vegetation type in the ecoregion is coniferous forest. Species composition and associations reflect the influence of maritime weather systems that penetrate from the Pacific. Thus, tree species found in the Cascades and Pacific coastal ranges are also strongly represented here. Hemlocks (Tsuga spp.), Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), and larch (Larix spp.) are found here, yet are absent from other Rocky Mountain forests.... [There are none of these species in the Helena area. -LF] Montane forests include western hemlock (T. heterophylla) and western red cedar (Thuja plicata), with white spruce (Picea glauca) and alpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) forests more prevalent to the south [The first two species are not found near Helena. -LF]. Montane areas also include stands of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and Douglas-fir (Psedotsuga menziesii), with some western white pine (P. monticola) and western larch (L. occidentalis). The subalpine forests are characterized by Engelmann spruce (P. engelmannii) and alpine fir, and stands of lodgepole pine that develop after fire. Fire is probably the most important disturbance regime, although the rugged terrain results in high precipitation and flash floods and landslides in some areas.

In addition to expansive conifer forests, the ecoregion contains several other vegetation communities. Mountain meadows, foothill grasslands, riparian woodlands, and upper treeline/alpine communities exist throughout the ecoregion. The ecoregion is characterized by dramatic vertical zonation of vegetation and asssociated fauna. This zonation is a consequence of abrupt elevational gradients between flatlands and mountains. Secondary climatic effects of topographic relief (e.g., rain-shadow effects, exposure to or shelter from prevailing winds, and thermal inversions) likewise influence zonation....

The area has noteworthy populations of large carnivores, including wolves (Canis lupus), grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), and wolverines (Gulo luscus). There are also populations of rare woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus ssp. caribou), the only caribou to live in areas of deep snow. Other wildlife include: black bear (Ursus americanus), mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus), grouse (Dendragapus spp.), waterfowl, black and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus and O. virginianus), and moose (Alces alces). In the southeast, marten (Martes ameriana) and bobcat (Lynx rufus) occur, while in the northern part of the Southern Rocky Mountain Trench, coyote (Canis latrans) and cougar (Puma concolor) are found.

Logging, hard-rock mining, oil and gas development, and recreational-residential construction are all major anthropogenic threats to the ecoregion. Domestic livestock grazing and introduction of exotic species are altering species compositions. Burgeoning recreational use of remote areas is also affecting the ecoregion.

Transportation corridors such as ...US Highway 2, and I-90 are major fragmentation areas that may reduce the long-term viability of the ecoregion's carnivore populations. Major mining sites, large clearcuts, and other high-impact resource extraction activities have also reduced connectivity within the ecoregion and among neighboring ecoregions.

The ecoregion has a substantial amount of protected areas.... However, these are not optimally configured for long-term viability. Thus, major changes and disturbances in relatively small areas could have the disproportionately large effect of isolating these protected areas from one another....

The major threats are loss of connectivity among habitat blocks due to resource extraction and development, and increased human activity within habitat blocks as more people occupy the region. ...The highest priority activity should be to implement a comprehensive large carnivore conservation strategy for the ecoregion.

3. South Central Rockies forests (WWF ecoregion NA0528)

The South Central Rockies Forest is centered primarily on the Yellowstone Plateau and the mountain ranges radiating outward from the plateau. This unit lies mainly in western Wyoming, extending into eastern Idaho and central Montana. A second large unit comprises the mountains of central and eastern Idaho south of the Clearwater River. The ecoregion also exists in two additional isolated units: the Bighorn Mountains of north-central Wyoming / south-central Montana, and the Black Hills of western South Dakota / northeastern Wyoming.

...The ecoregion is characterized by dramatic vertical zonation of vegetation and asssociated fauna. This zonation is a consequence of abrupt elevational gradients between flatlands and mountains. Topographic relief is quite dramatic; for example, the Bighorn Mountains rise 2,794 m over the surrounding lowlands (Knight 1994). The range of biotic zones is greater in the higher mountains (e.g., Wind River and Teton Ranges in Wyoming; Madison Range in Montana). Secondary climatic effects of topographic relief (e.g., rain-shadow effects, exposure to or shelter from prevailing winds, and thermal inversions) likewise influence zonation (Peet 1988).

...The dominant vegetation type in the ecoregion is coniferous forest. Küchler (1985) classifies the potential vegetation type as Douglas-fir / spruce-fir forest, which would be dominated by Engleman spruce (Picea englemannii), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), and Douglas-fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii). As Peet (1988) points out, however, most forests in the Rocky Mountains "are in some stage of recovery from prior disturbance . . . climax stands [are] less common than seral communities." Thus, instead of one or all of the expected fir species, large areas of the ecoregion are dominated by lodgepole pine. To some extent, the preponderance of lodgepole pine reflects the greatly altered (via fire suppression) disturbance regime in the ecoregion (Knight 1994). Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is an important species at the upper treeline / krummholz zone.

In addition to expansive conifer forests, the ecoregion contains several other vegetation communities. Mountain meadows, foothill grasslands, riparian woodlands, and upper treeline / alpine communities exist throughout the ecoregion. In the Yellowstone unit, unique biotic communities occur in association with geothermal features (e.g., geysers, hot springs), due to the micro-environments created by varying chemical compositions and relatively warm temperatures (Knight 1994).

Relative to other Rocky Mountain ecoregions, the South Central Rockies is dry, experiencing a predominantly continental climate. Summers are brief and winters long and cold. Significant precipitation occurs in the higher elevations, typically as snow.

Fire, snow avalanches, major seismic disturbances, and wind are major disturbance patterns in this ecoregion. Prevailing winds alter distribution and morphology of tree species at higher elevations, while periodic "blowdown" events can topple several hundred hectares of mature forest at a time. These blown-down areas in turn can fuel stand-replacing fires during dry seasons. Herbivory is also a significant influence, particularly on aspen and riparian willow communities (Knight 1994).

...Logging, hard-rock mining, oil and gas development, and recreational-residential construction are all major anthropogenic threats to the ecoregion. Domestic livestock grazing and spread of exotic species are altering species compositions. Burgeoning recreational use of remote areas is also affecting the ecoregion....Many of the ecoregion's mountain ranges are still relatively intact, though most have been altered somewhat by historic mining, logging, grazing, and fire suppression. The mountains in and immediately adjacent to Yellowstone NP have seen only minor human influence in the last century.

...The following are mostly intact:

The Bridger - south-central Montana
Big Belt - south-central Montana [This range defines the eastern edge of the Helena Valley. -LF]
Little Belt - south-central Montana
Crazy Mountains - south-central Montana
But these areas show the effects of being isolated ranges near large population centers. Mountains to the south of YNP, including the Wind River, Wyoming, and Salt River Ranges, are rugged, remote, and relatively intact.

...Intensive development in valley bottoms, combined with existing transportation corridors, is beginning to disrupt connectivity within the ecoregion. Low elevation development (often in ecoregions 57, 75, and 77) has eliminated winter range or blocked off migratory routes for ungulates. Massive clearcuts, particularly on the Targhee National Forest, have similarly caused fragmentation. Development of the high alpine environment has been limited to date, with only four major downhill ski resorts throughout the entire area.

...The degree of protection in the ecoregion is fairly high, relative to some other Rocky Mountain ecoregions. Parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton embrace a broad elevational and climatic gradient. Combined with adjacent wilderness areas, they form large blocks of protected habitat for many species. More work, however, still needs to be done to meet the needs of wider ranging species like grizzly bears.

...Indiscriminate logging, and especially associated roadbuilding, are major problems. Existing road networks in nonwilderness areas are quite dense and contribute to an overall loss of habitat security. Rapid development of low elevation areas is another threat, although concentrated mainly in other ecoregions. Mortality to grizzly bears and possibly to wolves through ungulate hunters in the fall is unacceptably high and could well be making the difference between a growing and a declining grizzly population in Greater Yellowstone.

Identifying and maintaining critical linkage habitats within the ecoregion and among other ecoregions is vital....No more forest roads should be built, and seasonal closures and obliteration projects should be implemented to reduce motorized access. ...Management of visitor / recreationist behavior in parks and wildernesses should be increased. YNP should consider abandoning and obliterating part of its extensive paved road network.

Distinctiveness (1=highest,4=lowest): 3 (bioregionally important)
The abrupt elevation changes in this region create a variety of vegetation zones. Unique communities are associated with the geothermal features of Yellowstone National Park.

Conservation Status (1=most endangered, 5=most intact): 4 (relatively stable)
The mountain ranges are relatively intact, although disturbed by mining, logging, and fire suppression. Development in the valleys has contributed to fragmentation of the blocks of protected areas.

Characteristic species:
Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir)
Picea engelmannii (Engelmann spruce)
Abies lasiocarpa (subalpine fir)
Pinus contorta (lodgepole pine)
Pinus albicans (whitebark pine)

Distinctiveness (1=highest,4=lowest): 3 (bioregionally outstanding)
The ecoregion contains a variety of vegetation communities. Large carnivores, including Canus lupus (wolf) and Ursus arctos (grizzly bear) are present.

Conservation Status (1=most endangered, 5=most intact): 3 (vulnerable)
There are a substantial number of protected areas, such as national parks and wilderness areas. However, Fragmentation by transportation corridors may reduce the viability of the ecoregions large carnovires. Mining and logging are also threats.

Ground-truthing the information found on the two sites, I found the information very good. Variations are accounted for by local habitat types, exposure to sun, geomorphology, and altitude, in addition to various disturbance types.

Some folks are pretty knowledgeable about their own areas, but for those who live in heavily urbanized areas, or who move to a new locale, this process can be the important first step that can be done in an evening, to get you up to speed for local bioregion/ecological information very quickly.


Some of the important things you can do with this information in relation to your local cosmology and Druidry:

1. The characteristic species for your area will help with ogham symbolism for your local area's cosmology as well as the species spirits for your area you might want to prioritize for spiritual connection.

In the Helena area, the characteristic species mentioned in toto from all three region types include:

Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos)
Wolf (Canis lupus)
Wolverine (Gulo luscus)
Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
Pine Marten (Martes ameriana)
Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
Coyote (Canis latrans)
Cougar/Mountain lion (Puma concolor)
Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus)
Mule Deer (aka Black-tailed Deer)(Odocoileus hemionus)
White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus )
Moose (Alces alces)
Elk (Cervus elaphus)
Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis)
Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus ssp. caribou) [Not in the Helena area. -LF]
Bison/Buffalo (Bison bison)
Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana)
Rabbit (Sylvilagus sp.)

Grouse (Dendragapus spp.)
Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)
Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus bucinator)

Westslope Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus lewisi clarki)
Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarki)
Fluvial Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus)

Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii)
Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa)
Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta)
Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicans)
White Spruce (Picea glauca)

An important note: The lists missed a large number of other characteristic species for the Helena area, some of which have counterparts already in the ogham system of Europe: Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis), Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), Cottonwoods (Populus spp.), Alder (Ulnus spp.), Birch (Betula spp.), Green's Mountain Ash (Sorbus scopulina; related to the Rowan), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), Rocky Mountain Maple (Acer glabrum), and Boxelder (Acer negundo).

On the other hand, the following tree species from the list are not found in general or are uncommon in the Helena area to my knowledge, because our locale is generally too dry:
Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Western White Pine (P. monticola), Western larch (Larix spp.)

Wheatgrass (Agropyron spp.)
Fescue (Fescuta spp.)
Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)

2. Climatic/meteorological information...this will help determine directions of winds, and significant issues about water, storms, etc. for rites, invocation, annual cycles etc.

For example, Helena is within the chinook belt (occasional warming winter winds), and is in a rain shadow for the west winds bearing precipitation, creating dry local conditions, with the resulting summer thunderstorms often resulting in forest fires.

3. Disturbances in the areas, both natural and anthropogenic, which will help you decide about what workings might be appropriate, what energies to consider for invocation or banishment.

Local natural disturbances include forest fires, flashfloods, landslides, snow avalanches, etc. Anthropogenic disturbances include residential developments, hardrock mining, grazing and row crops, invasive species, and habitat fragmentation.
Tags: bioregional animism, cosmology, ecosystem, helena, montana, mythology

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