The disturbance patches most suitable for seedling establishment of pioneer riparian trees are also subject to future disturbances that produce high seedling mortality. We are monitoring plains cottonwood seedling establishment and mortality along the Wild and Scenic reach of the Missouri River upstream of Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana at four sites subject to livestock grazing and four paired, ungrazed exclosures. New seedlings at these sites were largely restricted to surfaces inundated by spring and summer flows. Winter ice drives and livestock grazing are important mortality factors along the study reach. Livestock grazing reduced seedling densities, although the position of these seedlings in normal flow years means it is unlikely that they will survive future disturbance. Average values of the maximum density parameter of a Gaussian curve of seedling distribution along a hydraulic gradient of inundating discharge were 30 and 114 seedlings/m2 on ungrazed sites in 1996 and 1997, compared to 19 and 18 seedlings/m2 for grazed sites. Water-surface elevations produced by ice drives and damming in the severe winter of 1995-1996 corresponded to inundating discharges of 1,670 to 4,580 m3/s. No existing trees at the study sites occurred at inundating discharges below 1,625 m3/s. Seedlings established as a result of maximum summer flows of 827 and 1,201 m3/s in 1996 and 1997 were all below the elevation of the 10-year return flow of 1,495 m3/s. Recruitment of plains cottonwood trees along this reach of the Missouri River is strongly dependent on infrequent high flows that position moist, bare disturbed patches high enough for seedlings to establish and survive subsequent flooding and ice scour, in contrast to other reaches and streams where hydrogeomophic processes of channel meandering and narrowing produce different patterns of disturbance patches.