Structural, sedimentological, and provenance data from Paleogene synorogenic deposits of the east-central flank of the Bighorn Mountains provide new information about the development of footwall growth synclines, the evolution of fault-related folds, and the erosional unroofing history of intraforeland uplifts. Three conglomerate units, the upper conglomerate member of the Fort Union Formation and the Kingsbury and Moncrief Members of the Wasatch Formation, are incorporated within an asymmetric, east-verging growth syncline in the footwall of the main range-bounding thrust system. Three stages of footwall deformation are recorded within these conglomerates. Analysis of mapped progressive unconformities, retrodeformed balanced cross sections, and conglomerate clast composition data define these stages as part of a continuum of deformation associated with the development of footwall growth synclines.
Development of an anticline-syncline pair marked the earliest stage of growth syncline formation (stage I). Rotation of the shared fold limb resulted in amplification of the growth syncline. Fine-grained, synorogenic sediment derived from easily eroded Mesozoic mudstone bypassed the growth syncline during this stage. By the end of Lebo Shale deposition, an average of 12.1% of shortening and 6.46 km of uplift had occurred along the range margin. Continued growth syncline development was marked by the deposition of the Kingsbury Conglomerate. The Kingsbury Conglomerate was derived from resistant, middle and lower Paleozoic carbonate strata in the uplifted source terrane. Intraformational unconformities, recording as much as 55° of bed rotation, were developed within the Kingsbury Conglomerate as fold limb rotation occurred coeval with deposition. Cross sections indicate that during this early stage of fault-related folding, an average of 16.9% shortening and 8.12 km of uplift occurred along the eastern flank of the Bighorn Mountains (end of stage I). The intermediate stage (stage II) of footwall growth syncline development involved partial truncation of the growth syncline by the advancing thrust faults and deposition of the Moncrief Conglomerate. The lower portion of the Moncrief Conglomerate was rotated basinward in the developing growth syncline. The final stage of deformation (stage III) was dominated by the thrust faulting of middle and lower Paleozoic strata eastward over steeply dipping Mesozoic strata and rotated Eocene synorogenic conglomerate. During this stage of deformation, the Moncrief Conglomerate was deformed, as the initially blind thrusts propagated into the near-surface conglomerate deposits, truncated the entire footwall syncline, and overrode the synorogenic conglomerate package. Cross sections in areas where this final stage of deformation is well developed indicate that an average of 24.1% shortening and 9.7 km of uplift had occurred along the eastern margin of the Bighorn Mountains.
The caliber of synorogenic deposition in the Powder River basin was linked directly to the lithologic composition of the Bighorn Mountains. Approximately half of the 3.6-km-thick source-stratigraphic section of the eastern Bighorn Mountains was eroded prior to accumulation of conglomerate. The majority of this eroded material was derived from Mesozoic mudstone and poorly indurated sandstone that were incapable of generating coarse detritus. The first Paleogene conglomerates deposited along the east-central Bighorn Mountains, therefore, do not represent the initiation of Laramide uplift, but instead represent the exposure of coarse-clast–forming rock types from the lower half of the hanging-wall stratigraphic section (i.e., the Mississippian Madison Limestone and Ordovician Bighorn Dolomite).