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An Environmental Overview of North Dakota: Past and Present

Biotic Inhabitants

With that, I will now discuss the biotic features of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in North Dakota. In pristine times, about 86% of what is now the state was grassland. The tallgrass prairie community occupied most of the Red River Valley and areas of rich moist soils further west such as are found along river valleys and around wetlands. Dominant plants in this community were about 3-6 feet tall. These were tall perennial grasses such as big bluestem, porcupine grass, prairie cordgrass, and indiangrass. Common large mammals included the bison, elk, and pronghorn. Common birds were the western meadowlark, Savannah sparrow, and bobolink.

A mixedgrass community occupied nearly all of central and western North Dakota. This community was less than 3 feet tall, and was dominated by a mixture of mid- and shortgrasses such as western wheatgrass, prairie junegrass, needle-and-thread, and blue grama. Besides the bison, elk, and pronghorn, characteristic mammals of this community included the kit fox and prairie dog. Common birds were the lark bunting, Baird's sparrow, and chestnut-collared longspur. A unique combination of mixedgrass prairie, brushlands, woodlands, exposed highly eroded bedrock, and flat-topped buttes exists along the Little Missouri River. This is the Badlands area that was home to the Audubon's sheep, kangaroo rat, coyote, and other western animals.

Most ecologists now agree that the prairie grasslands probably existed as an ever-changing, patchy mosaic influenced primarily by grazing, fire, climatic fluctuations, and to a lesser extent by the activities of the native Americans. Grazing by large ungulates, especially the huge northern bison herd which almost always was in slow migration, was probably the most important biological factor, but irregular outbreaks of orthopteran insects and the presence of large colonies of fossorial mammals also kept the grasses short over large areas. Fire devastated huge areas with great regularity, especially during the late summer and fall when lightning storms are common. Some ecologists attribute the basic formation of grasslands to fire and see strong correlations between the occurrence of grasslands and continental patterns of lightning frequencies. Unpredictable drought and wet periods, often of long duration, also resulted in shifts in the dominant plant and animal communities over broad areas.

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