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'Cross The Wide Missouri

Ft. Clark Sandbars

Chris Grondahl*

JPG-Ft. Clark Sandbars Map

Some of the more unique areas of the entire Missouri River System are found in North Dakota, where development has not occurred along the river's bank. One of the few remaining areas that fits this description is between Washburn and Stanton, east of the Fort Clark Historic Site. Here the river naturally flows between unobstructed shorelines and has produced some of the best sandbar nesting habitat for the threatened piping plover and endangered least tern found anywhere in the world.

Least terns and piping plovers require specific nesting habitat — bare sandbars or gravel shorelines absent of vegetation. The stretch of Missouri River east of the Fort Clark site possesses exactly what these birds need for survival. Least terns and piping plovers cannot nest just anywhere. They are not like coyotes or white-tailed deer that are opportunistic and may use a variety of habitats from prairies to woodlands. If plovers and terns do not have bare sandbar habitat available in spring, they simply do not nest.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineer personnel and others have monitored piping plover and least tern populations along the Missouri River since 1992. The Fort Clark stretch of the Missouri River is one of the most important segments, according to Greg Pavelka, COE biologist. This area contains the highest number of nesting piping plovers and least terns in the nearly 80 miles of Missouri River from Garrison Dam to Lake Oahe, and is obviously important to the future of these two species.

For terns and plovers, it is best to manage Missouri River System water levels in an attempt to produce high spring flows and then lower river levels as spring continues. This tends to produce new sandbars that are suitable for tern and plover nesting. The matter is complicated, however, as other interests up and down the system want river flow scenarios that best suit their own needs, whether for irrigation, development or navigation.

The citizens of North Dakota are best served by protecting and preserving the beauty and natural attributes of these last reaches of prime river habitat. This area is important to many wildlife species, and also to humans who can enjoy a segment of the Missouri River that looks much like it did when Lewis and Clark traveled through North Dakota in 1804.

  River Sandbars and Least Tern
River sandbars are critical nesting habitats for interior least terns and piping plovers. The Garrison Reach is one of the best river reaches of the 2,300 plus miles of the Missouri River for production of least terns and piping plovers and the Fort Clark area is the best within the Garrison Reach.
Inset: Least tern.

The best way to experience this wild river stretch is by canoe or boat in summer. Various public boat ramps north of the Fort Clark historic site are ideal launching sites, and Washburn is a logical place to finish if your trip is limited to one day. Bring binoculars to view the two species of birds that rely upon sandbars within this region. You may also glimpse bald eagles that nest in the area. The experience may forever influence how you view the importance of one of the few free flowing river stretches left on the Missouri River.

*Chris Grondahl is the Game and Fish Department's outreach supervisor.

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