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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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The Rare Ones

JPG-Swift foxes.


Early explorers and settlers of North Dakota saw miles and miles of prairie. The prairie was called a sea of grass because of the way vegetation waved and rolled in the wind. There was very little to break the monotony of the prairie except the wetlands that dotted the landscape.

Today, we can only imagine how the sea of grass looked. Much of the prairie has been plowed to produce crops. Shelterbelts, farmsteads, and powerlines now interrupt the formerly endless horizon.

Some prairies have survived better than others. Prairies on rocky, sandy, or hilly areas are sometimes left intact. Many of these are used for grazing livestock. The Red River Valley, however, has few prairie remnants left because the flat topography and fertile soil make it valuable cropland.

Few grasslands have survived man's impact: cattle now graze where buffalo once did; fires that rejuvinated prairie grasses and fortes are almost nonexistent. Many exotic species such as Kentucky bluegrass have suppressed native plants. Some of the plants and animals of the prairie are adaptable enough to survive the changes. Some are not. The species listed below could not adapt to these changes.

JPG-Golden eagle.

Grasslands Animals:


    Great Plains Wolf, Audubon Sheep


    Grizzly Bear, Mountain Plover, Bison, Common Raven


    Northern Swift Fox: The swift fox is believed to have lived throughout North Dakota, but since the early l900s, reports have been restricted to areas south and west of the Missouri River. It is highly vulnerable to trapping pressure andpredator control operations and was thought to be extinct until reported in recent years in North Dakota and South Dakota. The last North Dakota reports were in 1970 (Slope County) and 1976 (Mercer County). More recently, reports have been recorded from northern South Dakota counties. Populations may be increasing in response to cessation of large scale predator control campaigns.

    Black-footed Ferret: Historically, the black-footed ferret was never abundant. Probably because of its rareness, it was valued by Plains Indians, who used the pelts as ornamental dressings or ceremonial objects. The few North Dakota reports in this century (30 since 1910) have been restricted to counties south and west of the Missouri River. Most sightings have been in the vicinity of prairie dog towns near the Little Missouri and Cannonball rivers. The ferret's original range extended from Texas to Alberta.

    Peregrine Falcon: Only two records of nests or dependent young of this magnificent predator have been documented since 1920. Professional egg collectors who sold eggs to museums or private collectors greatly reduced the North Dakota population by the early 1900s. The pesticide DDT nearly eliminated the population in the lower United States during the 1950s and 60s. Recent restrictions on DDT use have allowed slight population recovery in some areas. Most nests in North Dakota were on ledges or in crevices on the sides of steep buttes in the western part of the state.


    Mountain Lion: The secretive nocturnal mountain lion has one of the widest ranges of any mammal in the western hemisphere, from British Columbia deep into South America. Human settlement and indiscriminate hunting resulted in extermination over much of its original range. Surviving populations are limited to wild areas, far from human settlement. In North Dakota, mountain lions did not occur east of the Missouri River following white settlement. Even fur traders of the early 1800s did not report lions taken from the eastern half of what is now North Dakota. Until recently, the mountain lion was considered completely extirpated from North Dakota. However, there has been an increased frequency of reports from remote areas west of the Missouri River (Billings, Dunn, McKenzie, Mercer, Oliver counties). Furthermore, there have been confirmed sightings in Manitoba near the North Dakota line. Therefore, a few may reside in the more wild areas of the state but we do not know if these are breeding residents or wanderers from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Montana.

    Greater Prairie Chicken: This grouse likely followed agriculture into North Dakota during the pioneer period and then became very abundant during the first three decades of this century. Since the 1930s the species has been in steady decline and remnant populations occur only in or near the Sheyenne National Grasslands in Richland and Ransom counties and in Sargent County. The bird is an inhabitant of tracts of tall grass prairie that are not heavily grazed or otherwise disturbed.

    JPG-Prairie chicken.

    Long-billed Curlew: This large shorebird inhabits short or mixed-grass prairie, but it suffered tremendous decreases in numbers as the prairies of North Dakota were converted to agricultural fields. Only a few pairs now reside in southwestern counties, but there too, the native grassland is being lost to agricultural and energy development.

    McCown's Longspur: Near the turn of the century, this sparrow-like bird abandoned large areas of the Dakotas for unknown reasons. Some speculate it was harmed by lack of suitable shortgrass nesting sites as the prairies lay idle after the bison were extirpated. A few McCown's longspurs remain in extreme western North Dakota where they nest in stubble fields and a few tracts of shortgrass prairie.


    Hispid Pocket Mouse, Ord's Kangaroo Rat

    Sage Grouse, Poor-will, Brewer's Sparrow

    Sagebrush Lizard, Prairie Skink


    Eastern Mole, Mountain Cottontail, Plains Pocket Mouse, Black-tailed Prairie Dog, Spotted Skunk, Pronghorn, California Bighorn

    Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Upland Sandpiper, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Burrowing Owl, Sprague's Pipit, Baird's Sparrow

Grasslands Plants:


    Milkweed Family:

    Prairie Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii): The original range of this species was the same as that of the tall grass prairie. Much of what was tall grass prairie has now been plowed. This species now occurs in Cass and Richland counties in tall grass prairie remnants along railroad right-of-ways and roadsides. Both of these habitats are quite vulnerable to degradation and the species has little ability to survive in degraded habitats.

    Aster Family:

    Fleabane (Erigeron ochroleucus): This species is known in only the Killdeer Mountains in Dunn County. It occurs in gravelly soils in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

    Rockrose Family:

    Frostweed (Helianthemum bicknellii): Frostweed occurs in sandy soil of open woodlands and prairie areas in Pembina and Ransom counties. The plant reaches its western limits of distribution in North Dakota. It is known from Maine west to North Dakota, south to Kansas and North Carolina.

    Beach Heather (Hudsonia tomentosa): This species is only known from the sandhills in Ransom County, where it occurs in dune areas. The only known collection of this plant in North Dakota was made in August 1900. The plant has been collected recently in the sandhills near Fertile, Minnesota and similar habitat certainly exists in the sandhills in southeastern North Dakota.

    Pinweed (Lechea stricta): Pinweed is known from Bowman and Richland counties in North Dakota. It grows in sandy soil of open woods and prairies and is known from North Dakota south to northeastern Nebraska, east to New York and Ontario, Canada.

    Adder's-tongue Family:

    The genus Botrychium, has at least three endangered species in North Dakota. Dr. Warren H. Wagner of the University of Michigan, a specialist on this group, has recognized three species in the Lunaria group of Botrychium species. These are found north and east in North America and the populations in North Dakota are extremely small and endangered.

    Moonwort (Botrychium campestre): This species was collected by Dr. Dennis Disrud of Minot State College on coal mine spoils in Ward County and is the only known record in North Dakota.

    Moonwort - A species, yet to be named by Dr. Wagner, was collected in a prairie meadow in McHenry County.

    A specimen thought to be Botrychium multifidum was collected in Cavalier County. The specimen consisted of a single leaf and was determined by Dr. Wagner. Further investigation into the status of this species in North Dakota will be worthwhile.

    Buckwheat or Smartweed Family:

    Dakota Buckwheat (Eriogonum visheri): This species is known to occur in Grant, Sioux, and Mountrail counties in North Dakota where it grows in dry upland prairies. It is only known from western South Dakota and central North Dakota and is being considered for the federal endangered species list.

    Phlox Family:

    Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa): The prairie phlox is known from only Cass and Richland counties, in tall grass prairie areas. The occurrence of tall grass prairie is endangered by agricultural practices and therefore, this species is endangered also. It is known from eastern North Dakota east to New York and south to Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida.

    Buttercup or Crowfoot Family:

    Clematis (Clematis occidentalis): The purple clematis grows on rock outcrops in the Killdeer Mountains in Dunn County, and is known from the Black Hills in South Dakota and the mountains of Wyoming and Montana.

    Rose Family:

    Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata): This species is recorded from only Billings and Cavalier counties, where it grows in upland prairie. It ranges from Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, south to North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, New York and Georgia. The populations in North Dakota are small.


    Annual Bursage (Ambrosia acanthicarpa), Arnica (Arnica cordifolia), Silky Aster (Aster sericeus), False Yarrow (Chaenactis douglasii), Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum), Sawtooth Sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Senecio (Senecio tridenticulatus), Stephanomeria (Stephanomeria runcinata), Stephanomeria (Stephanomeria tenuifolia), Cryptantha (Cryptantha torreyana), Double Bladderpod (Physaria didymocarpha), Pin Cushion Cactus (Coryphantha missouriensis), Cluster Dodder (Cuscuta glomerata), Smartweed Dodder (Cuscuta polygonorum), Blue Flag (Iris missouriensis), Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Astragalus (Astragalus aboriginum), Astragalus (Astragalus drummondii), Astragalus (Astragalus vexilliflexus), Nineanther Dalea (Dalea enneandra), Prairie Mimosa (Desmanthus illinoensis), Leafy Locoweed (Oxytropis deflexa), White Locoweed (Oxytropis sericea), Wild Alfalfa (Psoralea tenuiflora), Wild Onion (Allium canadense), Yellow Bell (Fritillaria pudica), Mountain Lily (Leucrocrinum montanum), Mentzelia (Mentzelia pumila), Boisduvalia (Boisduvalia glabella), Cutleaf Evening Primrose (Oenothera lacinata), Fourpoint Evening Primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala), Adder's-tongue (Ophioglossum vulgatum), Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus), White Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium candidum), Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis), Early Panicum (Panicum praecocius), Alkali Sacaton (Sporobolus airoides), Polygonum (Polygonum douglasii), Slender Lip Fern (Cheilanthes feei), Phlox (Phlox alyssifolia), Prairie Fameflower (Talinum parviflorum), Buttercup (Ranunculus cardiophyllus), Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), Penstemon (Penstemon procerus).

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