Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Gary L. Krapu
Johnson Gulch is the largest and best known of several deep ravines that formed where glacial meltwaters cascaded east off the huge mounds of debris that had accumulated in front of the last glacier to advance into south central North Dakota. The ravines now form the headwaters of several small intermittent creeks and the adjoining hills mark the abrupt eastern edge of the Missouri Coteau.
Diverse landforms contain a variety of soil types and water regimes that support a wide array of plant communities. Prairie plants are the dominant vegetation on most of the area. However, the deep ravines, wetland basins, and fens, support a variety of other plants. Of the numerous prairie grasses that occur on the area, the most prominent is little bluestem which casts a reddish hue to the hills in autumn. Bur oak and green ash are the dominant woody plants along the steep slopes of the ravines and American elm occurs along the spring-fed creek that winds through the bottom of Johnson Gulch. Roundleaf hawthorn forms an occasional upland thicket. Brightly colored lichens grow on many of the large boulders that dot the hillsides.
Many species of birds and mammals live here. The white-tailed deer, coyote and red fox are common. Among the western species occurring on the tract are the black-billed magpie, a permanent resident and the mule deer which is occasionally present.
Johnson Gulch takes on special significance with the approach of the State Centennial because the tract affords one of the best opportunities in central and eastern North Dakota for gaining an appreciation of the prairie landscape as it existed before statehood. The area is situated at the northeastern edge of an unbroken prairie tract of about 12,000 acres that forms a prairie vista that extends to the horizon. Looking eastward from hilltops overlooking the Drift Prairie, one can scan hundreds of square miles of eastern North and South Dakota and gain some appreciation for how the area must have appeared to earlier visitors when large herds of wild game could be seen grazing on the plain below.
Man's association with the area goes back at least several thousand years. Prominent signs of earlier habitation include burial mounds on either side of the gulch that probably were built during the Middle Plains Period (100 B.C.-600 A.D.). Stone tepee rings are commonplace on higher ground. The Cut-head band of Yanktonai Sioux were the last Native Americans to occupy the general area prior to arrival of European settlers in the early 1880s.
As a reminder of the short span of time that has elapsed since eastern North Dakota was a primeval wilderness, bison bones can be seen imbedded in the banks at the bottom of the gulch. These bones accumulated where the bison were apparently slaughtered after being stampeded over the steep north bank of the gulch to supply the meat and hides that were the mainstay of former cultures that inhabited the area.
Background Information: Local historical accounts are provided at nearby Whitestone Hill Battlefield State Historical site.
Facilities: A parking lot, short trail and outdoor toilets are on the site. Camping is allowed. Durations over 10 days require permit.
Ownership and Contact: Johnson Gulch WMA is owned by N.D. Game and Fish Department. Information on use regulations is available by writing: N.D. Game and Fish Department, District Office, Lisbon, ND 58054.
DR. GARY L. KRAPU was raised near Johnson Gulch and is a research biologist at Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, N.D.