• A translucent blanket of clouds hangs over the snowy continental divide above Bear Lake Road. NPS Photo by VIP Olsen

    Rocky Mountain

    National Park Colorado

Subalpine Ecosystem

The Subalpine Ecosystem occupies elevations approximately between 9,000 and 11,000 feet. A typical subalpine forest may consist mostly of subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce. However, previously-burned areas may contain varying amounts, or even almost pure stands, of lodgepole pine. Lodgepole seedlings do well in sunlight, often abundant after fire, but once the forest is established, plant succession may result in increasing amounts of spruce and subalpine fir. Ground cover in a previously-burned forest area often includes two species of huckleberry. Limber pine, with flexible twigs and needles in groups of five, may also be a part of subalpine forests. In high, windblown areas, limber pines often grow into grotesque shapes. Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, which grow straight and tall in the lower subalpine forests, become shorter and deformed nearer treeline. Even as the trunk grows upward, strong, cold, dry winds may destroy new growth on the windward side, leaving permanent growth only on the lee side of the trunk. Trees with branches on only one side are often called banner trees or flag trees.
 
At treeline, tree seedlings may germinate on the lee side of rocks and grow only as high as the rock provides wind protection. Further growth is more horizontal than vertical, and additional rooting may occur where branches contact the soil. The resulting low growth of dense trees is called krummholz. Snow cover may protect krummholz trees during the winter, but branches higher than wind-shelters or snow cover are usually destroyed. Well-established krummholz trees may be several hundred to a thousand years old.
 

Plants and Animals of the Subalpine Ecosystem

Trees:
Subalpine Fir Limber Pine
Engelmann Spruce

Shrubs:

Blueberry (Vaccinium) Elder
Cinquefoil Wood's Rose
Wax Current

Herbaceous Plants:

Arnica Needle Grass
Fairy Slipper Colorado Blue Columbine
Gentian Sneezeweed
Lousewort Twinflower
Pipsissewa Sedge
Senecio

Birds:

Brown Creeper Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Pine Grosbeak Clark's Nutcracker
Mountain Chickadee White Breasted Nuthatch
Red Crossbill Williamson's Sapsucker
Hermit Thrush Pine Siskin
Blue Grouse Raven
Dark-Eyed Junco Olive-Sided Flycatcher
Gray Jay Townsend's Solitaire
Stellar's Jay Yellow-Rump Warbler
Northern Goshawk Woodpecker (Downy and Hairy

Mammals:

Pine Marten Yellow-Bellied Marmot
Black Bear Deer Mouse
Bobcat Porcupine
Chipmunk Snowshoe Hare
Nuttall's Cottontail Shrew
Coyote Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel
Mule Deer Long-Tailed Weasel
Elk Meadow Vole
Chickaree Bushy Tailed Wood Rat
Mountain Lion


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