From Microbes to Mountains

Two Billion Years of Teton History

Written by Hanna Palmer

The Tetons • Photo by Lane V. Erickson (shutterstock.com)

“On top of the Tetons is a secret, the bare rock blasted by winter snows and seared by summer heat…. Eons ago, the first life form thrived at the bottom of Earth’s early ocean—mats of blue-green algae that began to oxygenate the water for other life. Now, at the very top of a young mountain range, we can find those very mats. Our Earth is a vibrant, moving, living thing.”

– Susan B. Eirich, PhD

Teton Valley lies between southeast Idaho and a portion of southwest Wyoming, with the Teton Mountain Range forming a jagged, sky-scraping boundary between the states. The beginning of the Valley formed over 2.7 billion years ago with an assortment of rocks on a primordial seafloor. The pressure between two tectonic plates drove this bed of volcanic rock deep beneath the Earth’s surface, where it metamorphosed into gneiss; today, this ancient rock can still be identified out in the far reaches of the Teton Mountain Range by its distinct gray and black marbling. The upward push of the Teton Fault during the Miocene, approximately 10 million years ago, would raise this transformed rock to serve as the cradle of the valley. It is here, atop chilled peaks, where the remains of the origin of life can be found.

West of Mount Moran, nestled into a high alpine meadow in the remote expanse of Green Mountain, lies a surreal sight: stark gray mounds reminiscent of solidified coral reefs abruptly protrude from the ground, their outward texture bubbly and seemingly unnatural in comparison to the clean-shaven cliff faces of the surrounding area. However, these formations couldn’t be more organic—literally. Before there was man or wolf or fish, there were minuscule aquatic cells that had perfected the art of photosynthesis. These miraculous, primal life forms inhabited a seaway known as the Cordilleran trough, a section of ocean that completely submerged what is now Idaho and Wyoming for eons. By converting sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to oxygen, cyanobacteria—or blue-green algae—shaped the modern world from their self-created microbial mats billions of years ago. Organisms that could not survive in an oxygen-rich environment were quickly snuffed out, yet this void ushered in new life. The continuous cycle of evolution generated great reptiles, fish, and, eventually, mammals. These life forms were all brought about by the great shift in the atmosphere created by cyanobacteria. Now, the solidified remains of these creatures from the very beginning of life rest unassumingly in the mountains of Teton Valley.

Rocky mounds of fossilized algae
Algal Mounds • Photo by Jason Rolfe

From cyanobacteria to the first creature to take to the land in Idaho (a curious fish called crossopterygian) and relatives of the Tyrannosaurus rex, Idaho and Wyoming have witnessed millions of years of creation. However, a snowy pilgrimage from Asia over 16,000 years ago resulted in a pivotal moment in history: the earliest evidence of humans in Idaho. These first inhabitants would thrive among the likes of mammoths, direwolves, large camels, and giant sloths while nurturing languages, kinship, and culture.

In Idaho, there are seven Indigenous peoples, each known by two names: one given by the people themselves and one applied by outside groups, the most frequent being Euro-American colonizers.* Each tribe has their own extensive history, culture, and intimate ties to their aboriginal land. A brief article cannot encapsulate the complete story of these Indigenous peoples. However, it is essential to remain cognizant and sensitive to the experience of the original humans of the Americas and the lasting impact of the genocide of millions of Indigenous lives. For humans to deeply connect with the land from which we arose and take action for the betterment of the world, we must know and embrace its historical background.

Members of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes have lived in the Teton Valley area for over 11,000 years. Other Indigenous tribes such as the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Nez Perce, and Crow hunted and gathered seasonal resources in the valley. These tribes were nomadic and relied on highly developed knowledge and understandings of nature to travel and thrive throughout the land. There was—and is—an abundant variety of flora and fauna due to the valley’s unique geology. The valley floor supported great seas of sagebrush, aspen fleabane, and prairie Junegrass. Carving through this great green sea is the Teton River, its banks boasting chokecherries, hawthorns, willows, cottonwoods, and riparian forests. Higher altitudes house quaking aspens, lodgepole pines, and serviceberries. Each season brought its own boons through the rotation of weather and the migration of antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and bison. Outlets to distant lands via rivers and mountain passages all offered a vital flow of life to those who resided within the valley.

These lifelines to the outside world were eventually utilized by Euro-American colonizers. Many trails used to access Wyoming and Idaho were already pre-existing native hunting trails—for example, the Raynolds Expedition through Teton Pass and the Oregon, Californian, Mormon, and Pony Express Trails all overlap with routes well-known by Indigenous tribes. Although these new emigration routes created a supply of furs and horses, they also ushered in illness and great violence for Indigenous peoples across North America; tribes were forced off of aboriginal lands through the threat and use of violence as homesteaders laid claim to the “New World.” Native tribes, including the Shoshonee and Bannock people, were removed from the lands of Teewinot (now called the Teton Mountain Range) before the official settlement of Jackson Hole in 1884.

Since the establishment of Teton Valley, the historical landscape has been utilized by modern townspeople to support their living needs. From the soil to the water to the wildlife, very few elements in nature have remained untouched by human hands; natural, historical change has been adapted by mankind to address current needs for centuries. For example, during the Tertiary Period from 2.6 to 60 million years ago, the landscape underwent radical expansion and erosion. Overtime, Tertiary rock that had been weathered into sediment along with glacial outwash and volcanic tuffs settled on the valley floor. This multi-million year-old sediment provides essential nutrients for modern day agriculture. Meanwhile, easily carvable rocks from the volcanic tuffs are showcased in the original construction of the Corner Drug building in downtown Driggs.

In order to supply a wide variety of stakeholders with access to water, the hydrology of the land has been changed to fit the needs of humans. In Teton Valley, irrigated agriculture has the greatest impact on natural resources. However, recent times have seen an increase in private development in riparian ecosystems. One example of this is the Teton Creek Corridor. This essential migration corridor for Yellowstone cutthroat trout and elk—among other forms of wildlife—underwent alterations starting in the 1980s. The main stream of Teton Creek was straightened, widened, and dredged while the surrounding flora was removed. Additionally, side channels to the creek were filled in. This resulted not only in the destruction of riparian habitat but also led to approximately 90,000 tons of sediment being displaced and washed downstream.

Spawning cutthroat trout
Cutthroat Trout spawning in Lamar Valley • Photo by Jay Flemming (Creative Commons 2.0)

The same fate of Teton Creek now threatens other historical migration routes. Running through Earthfire Institute in Tetonia is the South Leigh Creek migration corridor. This land saves what remains as a passageway for big game, breeding grounds for raptors, and is classified as priority wetland habitat. Additionally, the riparian forest of South Leigh Creek is the final stretch of the 2,000 mile Yellowstone to Yukon migration corridor, making it a part of one of the last intact mountain ecosystems in the world. From mice to moose, trout to grizzlies, sandhill cranes to great gray owls, this corridor has provided local wildlife with shelter, food, and access to mates for thousands of years. Recent development of residential properties and the expansion of agricultural lands now threaten the precarious balance of this crucial ecosystem.

Deep connection comes from understanding. By reconnecting with the history of the land, we can gain a better awareness of our place as a part of nature. As people from all walks of life gather in the Tetons to partake in their beauty, it is imperative to acknowledge the history of the land and the stories of its inhabitants throughout time; only then can we fortify our innate bond with the world around us and use it to make informed decisions. Those that live here today—people, plants, and animals alike—were not the first to exist here and they won’t be the last. We walk through a mosaic of memories that speak of struggles past, evolution now, and tomorrow’s hope for a thriving, sustainable Earth.

Earthfire Institute encompasses 165 acres of precious valley ground, laying directly alongside South Leigh Creek and preserving key wildlife within the land we protect. Forty acres of our property houses sanctuary animals that are native to our area: wolves, cougars, bison, brown bears, foxes, coyotes, and more. Additional undeveloped acreage that includes portions of the creek and natural habitat was purchased and preserved by Earthfire in 2020.

It’s our mission to reawaken our deep connection to wildlife and nature through Reconnection Ecology® (RE), moving us to protect thriving habitats for all Life. An essential component of RE is our acknowledgement and continued respect for the history of the land we all inhabit along with our commitment to protect and nurture. As we live and grow, making choices daily as we move ahead, we’re building a history for future generations to look back on with gratitude for the decisions we made today.

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