Granitic plutonism and extension are broadly contemporaneous in many metamorphic core complexes. However, the relationship between magmatism and extension is rarely unambiguous. The northern Idaho batholith (Idaho-Bitterroot batholith), Montana and Idaho, composes the footwall for most of the Bitterroot metamorphic core complex and thus is an ideal area for assessing the relationships between magmatism and extension. We analyzed zircon from six samples of granitic rock from the Idaho-Bitterroot batholith using the SHRIMP (II) ion microprobe. Three samples of mylonitic granite from the Bear Creek pluton, Lost Horse Canyon, give a weighted mean 206Pb/238U age of 54.3 ± 0.7 Ma. A protomylonitic granite from the central part of the Bitterroot core complex (also Bear Creek pluton) gives a similar 206Pb/238U age of 54.6 ± 0.8 Ma. Mylonitic megacrystic granite from Sweathouse Canyon yields an age of 63.6 ± 0.6 Ma. A granite sample from the Lochsa Canyon, in the central Idaho-Bitterroot batholith, gives an age of 56.7 ± 1.0 Ma. Inherited zircon from the granitoids ranges in age from 800 to 1820 Ma, but the majority of grains have formation ages of 1750–1800 Ma. This suggests that Paleoproterozoic crust dominates the source region of the Idaho-Bitterroot batholith.
Hornblende 40Ar-39Ar age spectra for mafic dikes intruded during late-stage crystallization of main-phase granite in the central Idaho-Bitterroot batholith suggest crystallization of the main-phase plutons in this area at ca. 57 Ma. New and previously published 40Ar-39Ar and K-Ar apparent ages of biotite and muscovite from the Lochsa River area and the western and central Bitterroot core complex are 50 to 47 Ma. Younger mica ages (46–43 Ma) are restricted to the vicinity of the Bitterroot mylonite zone. These results indicate that the cessation of main-phase magmatism within the Bitterroot metamorphic core complex migrated east with time, and that most of the plutons in the core complex were intruded during the Paleocene and early Eocene.
When the regional tectonic setting changed from compression to extension at ca. 50 Ma, the late stages of mid-crustal, peraluminous plutonism appear to have been localized within the Bitterroot core complex. The presence of the youngest mid-crustal plutons in this area may have focused extensional deformation leading to the thick mylonite zone, as a consequence of rheological contrasts with cooler areas to the east and west. A progression of K-Ar and 40Ar-39Ar cooling ages from west to east within the core complex part of the batholith is consistent with top-to-the-east shear indicators in the mylonite zone. Thermochronology indicates that the western part of the Bitterroot metamorphic core complex was below ≈350°C at the same time as the last stage of granite emplacement and metamorphism in the east. Therefore, the transition from mylonitization to brittle deformation to inactivity of the shear zone was progressive from west to east across the core complex from ca. 50 to 44 Ma. These features offer an explanation for the previously enigmatic occurrence of amphibolite facies ductile deformation in the eastern part of the core complex coincident with emplacement of epizonal, alkali-feldspar granite plutons along the western side of the complex.