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The late Eocene to early Miocene Renova Formation records initial post-Laramide sediment accumulation in the intermontane basin province of southwest Montana. Recent studies that postulate deposition of the Renova Formation were restricted to a broad, low-relief, tectonically quiescent basin on the eastern shoulder of an active rift zone vastly differ from traditional models in which the Renova Formation was deposited in individual intermontane basins separated by basin-bounding uplands.

This study utilizes detrital zircon geochronology to resolve the paleogeography of the Renova Formation. Detrital zircon was selected as a detrital tracer that can be used to differentiate between multiple potential sources of similar mineralogy but with distinctly different U-Pb ages. Laser ablation-multicollector-inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-MC-ICPMS) U-Pb detrital zircon ages were determined for 11 sandstones from the Eocene-Oligocene Renova Formation exposed in the Sage Creek, Beaverhead, Frying Pan, Upper Jefferson, Melrose, and Divide basins.

Detrital zircon ages, lithofacies, paleoflow, and petrography indicate that provenance of the Renova Formation includes Paleogene volcanics (Dillon volcanics and Lowland Creek volcanics), Late Cretaceous igneous intrusions (Boulder batholith, Pioneer batholith, McCartney Mountain pluton), Mesozoic strata (Blackleaf Formation, Beaverhead Group), Belt Supergroup strata, and Archean basement. The oldest deposits of the Renova are assigned Bridgerian to Uintan North American Land Mammal (NALM) ages and contain detrital zircons derived from volcanic, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks constituting the “cover strata” to uplift-cored Late Cretaceous plutonic bodies. Regional unroofing trends are manifested by a decreased percentage of cover strata–sourced zircon and an increased percentage of pluton-sourced zircon as Renova deposits became younger. Zircon derived from Late Cretaceous plutonic bodies indicate that initial unroofing of the McCartney Mountain pluton, Pioneer batholith, and Boulder batholith occurred during Duchesnean time.

Facies assemblages, including alluvial fan, trunk fluvial, and paludal-lacustrine lithofacies, are integrated with detrital zircon populations to reveal a complex Paleogene paleotopography in the study area. The “Renova basin” was dissected by paleo-uplands that shed detritus into individual intervening basins. Areas of paleo-relief include ancestral expressions of the Pioneer Range, McCartney Mountain, Boulder batholith–Highland Range, and Tobacco Root Range. First-order alluvial distributary systems fed sediment to two noncontiguous regional-trunk fluvial systems during the Chadronian. A “Western fluvial system” drained the area west of the Boulder batholith, and an “Eastern fluvial system” drained the area east of the Boulder batholith. Chadronian paleodrainages parallel the regional Sevier-Laramide structural grain and may exhibit possible inheritance from Late Cretaceous fluvial systems.

Detrital zircons of the Renova Formation can be confidently attributed to local sources exposed in highlands that bound the Divide, Melrose, Beaverhead, Frying Pan, Upper Jefferson, and Sage Creek basins. The data presented in this study do not require an Idaho batholith provenance for the Renova Formation.

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