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Nongame Birds, Small Mammals, Herptiles, Fishes:
Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, 1995-1996

Nongame Herptiles and Fishes

Amphibians and reptiles (collectively referred to as herptiles) and fishes are an integral part of most temperate ecosystems. However, there is little information about their life history needs and habitat requirements, due in part to a simplistic view of ecosystem management (Szarro 1988). But the more that is known about an area's species, the easier it is to develop a plan to manage and monitor its resources (Mixon 1993).

There has been no deliberate attempt to study herptiles in the James River Basin (Becker 1979); however, several fisheries related projects have been conducted on the refuge and in adjacent areas (Elsen 1977, Becker 1979, Clark and Willis 1989, Halseth and Willis 1989, Carlson and Berry 1990, Clark et al. 1991, USFWS 1992, Berry et al. 1993).


Herptile and fish sampling and inventory occurred throughout the study and in conjunction with other activities. Documented past records of these species were treated as independent observations. Vouchered specimens were prepared for many of the fish and herptile species, and photographs of medium- to large-sized reptiles, amphibians, and fish also were accepted as formal documentation. Herptile species names (Appendix A) followed Banks et al. (1987).

Amphibians and Reptiles.

Turtle Pitfall traps work well for sampling amphibians and reptiles (Corn 1994) and were checked for herptiles in conjunction with small mammal sampling. Wetland areas often used as herptile breeding sites were visually surveyed (Scott and Woodward 1994). Amphibian larvae were sampled in wetland areas in conjunction with fish sampling since seining, netting, and trapping methods were similar (McDiarmid 1994). Turtle traps (frame and box) were also placed in wetland habitats throughout the refuge and baited with common carp remains.
Members from the Minnesota Herpetological Society assisted in a general herptile survey during 27-29 May 1995, searching in vegetation and under rocks, logs, and other debris. They provided the field identification of the herptile species on SLNWR.


Fish species from earlier studies were treated as independent observations in this study. Otherwise, fish were captured with barrel minnow traps and bag seines (9 m long × 1.2 m deep × 4.7 mm mesh). Larger species of fish were sampled with hoop or fyke nets, both with and without leads. Traps were placed selectively throughout wetland habitats on the refuge.

Results and Discussion

Amphibians and Reptiles.

No historical, quantitative records of herptiles on the refuge exist. Past refuge personnel only mentioned seasonal sightings in quarterly narrative reports. For the state of South Dakota, the only historical data on herptile occurrence were compiled by Over (1943). This document contains only qualitative and anecdotal distributional accounts of amphibians and reptiles (Table 20).

Table 20.  Reptiles and amphibians of Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Brown County, South Dakota, and neighboring counties.
Species Survey
    Mudpuppy     X
    Tiger salamander X X X
    Canadian toad X   X
    Woodhouse's toad   X  
    Great plains toad X X X
    Western chorus frog X   X
    Cricket frog   X X
    Gray tree frog     X
    Northern leopard frog X X X
    Snapping turtle X X X
    Western painted turtle X X X
    Northern prairie skink X X X
    Northern red-bellied snake X X X
    Plains garter snake X X X
    Red-lined garter snake   X X
    Bull snake   X  
    Western smooth green snake   X X
    Eastern hognose snake   X  
* Over (1943) listed herptile occurrence for the state, observations from neighboring counties are included here.
** Becker (1979) listed species in neighboring Day, Marshall, and Roberts counties.

Many species of amphibians and reptiles may be restricted because of the northerly location of SLNWR in the U.S. (Becker 1979). SLNWR is also located between distributional boundaries of many herptiles. However, the James River and its tributaries may provide a suitable dispersal corridor for many herptile and fish species.

During this study, 10 species of herptiles representing four orders were found on SLNWR (Table 20). Tiger salamanders were found in wetland areas throughout the refuge. They were readily captured in barrel minnow traps, seine hauls, and pitfall traps and were commonly seen crossing roads, especially after rains in summer.

Four species of frogs and toads—Canadian toads, Great Plains toads, western chorus frogs, and northern leopard frogs—were commonly seen or captured on the refuge. These four species are common in South Dakota and have been known to occur in the eastern half of the state (Sharps and Benzon 1984).

Two species of turtles were found on SLNWR: the snapping turtle and the western painted turtle. Both species have statewide distribution (Sharps and Benzon 1984).

The western painted turtle occurred commonly in wetland habitats, and individuals were often seen basking along shores and on fallen trees. Snapping turtles were less common; one was seen at the Hecla Recreation Area. Refuge personnel report that very few snapping turtles are seen on the refuge.

One skink species and two snake species were found on SLNWR. The northern prairie skink was seen only occasionally near an abandoned railroad track on the southeastern part of the refuge, an area characterized by very sandy soils. The skink was found by systematically searching under rocks and logs, and it was captured in pitfall traps near such objects. Sharps and Benzon (1984) showed the prairie skink only in the eastern half of the state.

Only one snake is common to the refuge: the plains garter snake, and it is commonly seen throughout the refuge. Its distribution is statewide (Sharps and Benzon 1984).

A northern red-bellied snake was captured west of the Houghton Dam. It is listed as a state-threatened species for South Dakota (Sharps and Benzon 1984), but this may be more of an artifact of low report rates than of the snake's rare distribution in eastern counties. For example, road-killed red-bellied snakes were found near Waubay NWR, Day County, and in Brookings County (K. Higgins, pers comm, SDSU, Brookings).

Two snakes of possible occurrence on SLNWR are the western smooth green snake and the bullsnake. Green snake sightings were mentioned in narrative refuge reports (SLNWR 1958), and bullsnakes have been seen or captured a few kilometers east (S. Glup, pers comm, USF&WS, Columbia, S.D.) and west (E. Podoll, pers comm, Columbia, S.D.) of the refuge.

Becker (1979) compiled accounts for herptiles in a technical paper for the James River. Species which have been found in Brown County and in neighboring Day, Marshall, and Roberts counties are listed in Table 20. The only herptile listed by Becker (1979) which was not found on the refuge during this study was the cricket frog.


Much more research has been conducted on James River and SLNWR fish populations than on the herptiles. Churchill and Over (1933) and Bailey and Allum (1962) provided early fish accounts for the area. Fifty-nine fish species have been reported in the James River drainage (Becker 1979), with the majority occurring in the southern reaches of the watershed. Thirty species have been collected during other studies in the James River around SLNWR (Becker 1979) (Table 21). Sixteen fish species were collected at SLNWR during the present study (Table 21).

Table 21.  Fish species which have been surveyed in the James River and at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Brown County, South Dakota.
Species Survey
Bailey and Allum
    Shortnose gar X      
    Northern pike X X X X
    Common carp X X X X
    Brassy minnow X      
    Golden shiner     X  
    Common shiner   X    
    Spottail shiner   X    
    Red shiner   X    
    Sand shiner X X X  
    Fathead minnow X X X X
    Creek chub     X  
    River carpsucker   X    
    White sucker   X X X
    Bigmouth buffalo X X X X
    Black bullhead X X X X
    Channel catfish X X    
    Tadpole madtom X X    
    Brook stickleback X X   X
    Green sunfish   X X X
    Pumpkinseed     X  
    Orangespotted sunfish X X    
    Bluegill     X  
    Smallmouth bass X      
    Largemouth bass   X X X
    White crappie   X    
    Black crappie   X X X
    Iowa darter X X X  
    Johnny darter   X X  
    Yellow perch X   X X
    Walleye X X   X
Total Species 16 22 17 12

The fish community of the James River has changed very little over the past 100 years (Berry et al. 1993). Many of the fish in the river, such as the common carp and walleye, represent species found in surrounding lakes (Berry et al. 1993).

Increasingly high water levels at the refuge have influenced the on-site fishery immensely, creating suitable habitat for many sport fish. Northern pike and walleye are among the most sought-after sport fish species in the system.

In "normal" water years, winterkill is used as a management technique to control black bullhead and common carp populations. Winterkill also reduces other local fish abundances.

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