"There's plants growing in them thar tailings!"

Tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) is a native bunchgrass that grows in a wide range of soil conditions and habitats in Montana and across the United States. While it is pretty enough to sometimes be used as an ornamental species in landscaping and garden settings, tufted hairgrass normally doesn’t attract much attention when it’s found growing on its own.

Here in Butte and the Upper Clark Fork watershed, tufted hairgrass is looked at quite a bit differently. Thirty years ago, when scientists first started examining the decimated floodplains of Silver Bow Creek and the Upper Clark Fork River prior to remediation and restoration, living plants were very scarce.  Only a handful of species could survive among the clumps of dead willows and barren areas of toxic mine tailings, deposited by floods over the past century. There was one plant though, a plant that wasn’t just surviving in the contaminated muck. It looked to be thriving. That plant was tufted hairgrass. 

For some reason still not entirely known, tufted hairgrass is the only plant that can tolerate these highly acidic and metals-contaminated environs. In fact, tufted hairgrass is so uniquely ubiquitous to stream-side areas contaminated with tailings, it is used in the Upper Clark Fork Superfund evaluation process as an indicator to identify which areas need to be cleaned up. 

If you’re curious to what this plant looks like, you can find it growing locally in these “natural” conditions. Take a stroll along the south side of Blacktail Creek by the Butte Visitors Center on George Street, or look at the grasses growing precariously out of the vertical walls of slag confining Silver Bow Creek downstream of Montana Street. (See photos) Not surprisingly, these two areas are in the ground-zero zones of two of the most contaminated areas in Butte yet to be cleaned up – the Blacktail Berm and the Butte Reduction Works areas, respectively. 

Given the main stream flowing in Butte (Blacktail Creek) runs through both of these areas, these are arguably the two pieces of Butte’s consent decree cleanup most important to the rest of the Upper Clark Fork watershed. If these areas aren’t remediated and restored properly, any wastes left in waters way will eventually be washed downstream. You can also find tufted hairgrass growing in the Diggings East and in the North Side Tailings areas, both formerly part of Silver Bow Creek’s historic floodplain through town.

Elsewhere, tufted hairgrass still grows on its own in the “slickens” areas along the Upper Clark Fork River where the tailings have yet to be removed. It is also one of the grasses included in the reclamation seed mixes used to restore Silver Bow Creek, so there’s plenty of it growing there too. And soon, we hope, there will be plenty of it growing alongside dozens of other species on Blacktail and Silver Bow Creeks in town, once Butte’s cleanup is complete!

PHOTO CUTLINE. Tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) is a perennial bunchgrass native to Montana and most of the U.S. It is known regionally within the Upper Clark Fork Superfund site for its unique tolerance to grow in highly acidic and heavy metals-laden tailings deposits. These two photos show a stand of tufted hairgrass growing along a tailings berm on Blacktail Creek and a few, tough individual plants sprouted from the vertical walls of the Silver Bow Creek “slag canyon.”