A University of Montana-led study has pointed to the importance of gravel-bed rivers in mountainous areas such as western Montana.

The study, published online at Science Advances, examined the area between Yellowstone Park and the Yukon to the north. UM Professor Ric Hauer said the gravel-bed river floodplains support over half of the plant life and is essential to bird species and deer, elk, wolves and bears.

In a news release, Hauer is quoted, "...we might wrongly imagine that the river is only water flowing in the channel. But, these gravel-bed systems are so much more than that. The river flows over and through the entire floodplain system, from valley wall to valley wall, and supports an extraordinary diversity of life. The river is so much bigger than it appears to be at first glance.”

The study notes that gravel and cobbles scour and change the river channels and water extends from the river channel across the U-shaped valleys.

Hauer said the floodplains are also among the most endangered landforms worldwide.

The study authors include Harvey Locke, co-founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative; UM professors Vicky Dreitz, Mark Hebblewhite, Winsor Lowe and Cara Nelson; Clint Muhlfeld, from the U.S. Geological Survey; Professor Stewart Rood from University of Lethbridge; and biologist Michael Proctor of Birchdale Ecological.