The Powder River basin is a Laramide foreland basin that was filled by a combination of fluvial, deltaic, paludal, and lacustrine sediments. The depositional history of the Fort Union Formation was unraveled in a regional subsurface study using data from approximately 1,400 geophysical well logs. The depositional model developed from the subsurface study was tested by selective fieldwork.

The Powder River basin originated as a structural and depositional basin in earliest middle Paleocene. As a result of rapid subsidence, a lake (Lake Lebo) formed along the basin axis. Lake Lebo, documented in the mudstone of the Lebo Shale Member, spread rapidly to cover an area greater than 10,000 mi2 (25,900 km2). During the middle through late Paleocene, Lake Lebo was filled peripherally by fluvial-deltaic systems that are recorded in the coarser clastics of the Tongue River Member. Primary basin fill was from: (1) the eastern margin by elongate deltas fed by suspended to mixed-load fluvial systems issuing from the ancestral Black Hills, and (2) the southwestern margin by mixed to bed-load streams emanating from the Wind River basin. Secondary fill was from the northwest by an elongate delta system fed by a suspended to mixed-load fluvial system flowing from the Bull Mountain basin.

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