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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Prairie Wildflowers and Grasses of North Dakota

Get to Know Your Prairie Wildflowers and Grasses

Prairies, or grasslands, in North Dakota and throughout the Great Plains have been gaining public interest over the last few years as more people became aware of their decline. Before the 1870's prairies covered more than a third of the United States and almost all of North Dakota. What once was a mosaic of grasses and forbs (flowering plants) where buffalo roamed is now predominantly agricultural land. With the arrival of increasing numbers of settlers in the late 1800's, the landscape started to change and continued to such a great extent that now only one half of a percent of those areas still remain.

Photo: Open field of prairie wildflowers

A combination of factors are to blame for this loss. Large-scale agriculture and intensive grazing are often criticized but fire suppression, introduction of exotic species, altered hydrology and modified animal communities also contributed.

Loss of diversity and distribution of prairie grass and forbs are of great concern but it's not just the plants that have suffered. Grasslands not only provide primary nesting habitat for a variety of bird species but also are very important staging and feeding areas for waterfowl and shorebirds during long migratory flights. In addition, prairies provide an important food source for small mammals and insects, which in turn support larger wildlife species. From a human standpoint, prairies can help to maintain clean air and water, control erosion, provide rich soil, are rich in history and folklore, and provide community income as a result of wildlife related recreation and tourism. All this combined makes it easy to see why prairies are now considered to be the most endangered ecosystems.

Historically, North Dakota was predominantly mixed-grass prairie in the southwest and tall-grass in the northeast. As the total annual precipitation increases eastward across the state, conditions allowed for taller, more robust grasses. Today some of the best places to find prairie plants in North Dakota are federal grassland refuges, state owned land, railway right-of-ways, ditches, old cemeteries, and pastures and on private property throughout the Missouri Couteau in the central and western parts of the state.

Prairie Declines in North Dakota
  Historical Acreage Present Acreage % Decline
Tallgrass Prairie 321,230 297 99.9
Mixed-grass Prairie 35,088,200 11,119,500 68.3
(Source: The American Prairie: Going, going, gone? A Status Report on the American Prairie: National Wildlife Federation, 2001)

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