Montana is a state in the Western United States. The state’s name is derived from the Spanish word montaña (mountain). Montana has several nicknames, none official, including “Big Sky Country” and “The Treasure State”, and slogans that include “Land of the Shining Mountains” and more recently “The Last Best Place”. Montana is ranked 4th in size, but 44th in population and 48th in population density of the 50 United States. The western third of Montana contains numerous mountain ranges. Smaller island ranges are found throughout the state, for a total of 77 named ranges that are part of the Rocky Mountains.
The economy is primarily based on agriculture, including ranching and cereal grain farming. Other significant economic activities include oil, gas, coal and hard rock mining, lumber, and the fastest-growing sector, tourism. The health care, service, and government sectors also are significant to the state’s economy. Millions of tourists annually visit Glacier National Park, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and Yellowstone National Park
Etymology and naming history
The name Montana comes from the Spanish word Montaña, meaning “mountain”, or more broadly, “mountainous country”. Montaña del Norte was the name given by early Spanish explorers to the entire mountainous region of the west. The name Montana was added to a bill by the United States House Committee on Territories, which was chaired at the time by Rep. James Ashley of Ohio, for the territory that would become Idaho Territory The name was successfully changed by Representatives Henry Wilson (Massachusetts) and Benjamin F. Harding (Oregon), who complained that Montana had “no meaning”. When Ashley presented a bill to establish a temporary government in 1864 for a new territory to be carved out of Idaho, he again chose Montana Territory. This time Rep. Samuel Cox, also of Ohio, objected to the name. Cox complained that the name was a misnomer given that most of the territory was not mountainous and that a Native American name would be more appropriate than a Spanish one. Other names such as Shoshone were suggested, but it was eventually decided that the Committee on Territories could name it whatever they wanted, so the original name of Montana was adopted.
See also: Regional designations of Montana, Ecological systems of Montana, List of mountain ranges in Montana and List of Forests in Montana
Map of Montana
With a total area of 147,040 square miles (380,800 km2), Montana is slightly larger than Japan. It is the fourth largest state in the United States after Alaska, Texas, and California; the largest landlocked U.S. state; and the 56th largest national state/province subdivision in the world. To the north, Montana shares a 545-mile (877 km) border with three Canadian provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. The state borders North Dakota and South Dakota to the east, Wyoming to the south and Idaho to the west and southwest.
The topography of the state is roughly defined by the Continental Divide, which splits much of the state into distinct eastern and western regions. Most of Montana’s 100 or more named mountain ranges are concentrated in the western half of the state, most of which is geologically and geographically part of the Northern Rocky Mountains. The Absaroka and Beartooth ranges in the south-central part of the state are technically part of the Central Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountain Front is a significant feature in the north-central portion of the state, and there are a number of isolated island ranges that interrupt the prairie landscape common in the central and eastern parts of the state. About 60 percent of the state is prairie, part of the northern Great Plains.
The Bitterroot Mountains—one of the longest continuous ranges in the entire Rocky Mountain chain from Alaska to Mexico —along with smaller ranges, including the Coeur d’Alene Mountains and the Cabinet Mountains, divide the state from Idaho. The southern third of the Bitterroot range blends into the Continental Divide. Other major mountain ranges west of the Divide include the Cabinet Mountains, the Anaconda Range, the Missions, the Garnet Range, Sapphire Mountains, and Flint Creek Range.
The northern section of the Divide, where the mountains give way rapidly to prairie, is part of the Rocky Mountain Front. The front is most pronounced in the Lewis Range, located primarily in Glacier National Park. Due to the configuration of mountain ranges in Glacier National Park, the Northern Divide (which begins in Alaska’s Seward Peninsula) crosses this region and turns east in Montana at Triple Divide Peak. It causes the Waterton River, Belly, and Saint Mary rivers to flow north into Alberta, Canada. There they join the Saskatchewan River, which ultimately empties into Hudson Bay.
East of the divide, several roughly parallel ranges cover the southern part of the state, including the Gravelly Range, the Madison Range, Gallatin Range, Absaroka Mountains and the Beartooth Mountains. The Beartooth Plateau is the largest continuous land mass over 10,000 feet (3,000 m) high in the continental United States. It contains the highest point in the state, Granite Peak, 12,799 feet (3,901 m) high. North of these ranges are the Big Belt Mountains, Bridger Mountains, Tobacco Roots, and several island ranges, including the Crazy Mountains and Little Belt Mountains.
St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park
Between many mountain ranges are rich river valleys. The Big Hole Valley, Bitterroot Valley, Gallatin Valley, Flathead Valley, and Paradise Valley have extensive agricultural resources and multiple opportunities for tourism and recreation.
East and north of this transition zone are the expansive and sparsely populated Northern Plains, with tableland prairies, smaller island mountain ranges, and badlands. The isolated island ranges east of the Divide include the Bear Paw Mountains, Bull Mountains, Castle Mountains, Crazy Mountains, Highwood Mountains, Judith Mountains, Little Belt Mountains, Little Rocky Mountains, the Pryor Mountains, Snowy Mountains, Sweet Grass Hills, and—in the southeastern corner of the state near Ekalaka—the Long Pines. Many of these isolated eastern ranges were created about 120 to 66 million years ago when magma welling up from the interior cracked and bowed the earth’s surface here.
The area east of the divide in the north-central portion of the state is known for the Missouri Breaks and other significant rock formations. Three buttes south of Great Falls are major landmarks: Cascade, Crown, Square, Shaw and Buttes. Known as laccoliths, they formed when igneous rock protruded through cracks in the sedimentary rock. The underlying surface consists of sandstone and shale. Surface soils in the area are highly diverse, and greatly affected by the local geology, whether glaciated plain, intermountain basin, mountain foothills, or tableland. Foothill regions are often covered in weathered stone or broken slate, or consist of uncovered bare rock (usually igneous, quartzite, sandstone, or shale). The soil of intermountain basins usually consists of clay, gravel, sand, silt, and volcanic ash, much of it laid down by lakes which covered the region during the Oligocene 33 to 23 million years ago. Tablelands are often topped with argillite gravel and weathered quartzite, occasionally underlain by shale. The glaciated plains are generally covered in clay, gravel, sand, and silt left by the proglacial Lake Great Falls or by moraines or gravel-covered former lake basins left by the Wisconsin glaciation 85,000 to 11,000 years ago. Farther east, areas such as Makoshika State Park near Glendive and Medicine Rocks State Park near Ekalaka contain some of the most scenic badlands regions in the state.
The Hell Creek Formation in Northeast Montana is a major source of dinosaur fossils. Paleontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman brought this formation to the world’s attention with several major finds.
Rivers, lakes and reservoirs
See also: List of rivers of Montana and List of lakes in Montana
Montana contains thousands of named rivers and creeks, 450 miles (720 km) of which are known for “blue-ribbon” trout fishing. Montana’s water resources provide for recreation, hydropower, crop and forage irrigation, mining, and water for human consumption. Montana is one of few geographic areas in the world whose rivers form parts of three major watersheds (i.e. where two continental divides intersect). Its rivers feed the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay. The watersheds divide at Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park.