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Physiographic Regions of
Eastern North Dakota

Map showing the locations of the physiographic regions described on this page.


The Glaciated Plain or Drift Plain

The glaciated plain includes most of Wells, Stutsman, Eddy, Foster, Griggs, Barnes, Steele, and western Cass Counties. It is nearly level to undulating with generally less than 20 feet of relief. The most common surface material is glacial sediment (till) deposited by meltwater (Bluemle, 1979). The prairie that formed on the Drift represents a transitional area between the tall grass prairie of the east and the short grass prairie of the west. It is normally referred to as Mixed Grass Prairie.

Prior to settlement of the area by Europeans the area had a very high density of shallow wetlands. As cultivation of the rich prairie soils became the principal use of the land, these wetlands were easily drained into small creeks and streams which generally run east to the James River. Some wetlands persist and are extremely valuable to breeding waterfowl and other marsh related birds.


The Missouri Coteau

An escarpment extending from north to south in western Stutsman and southern Wells Counties separates the Drift Plain from an area of thicker glacial sediment called the Missouri Coteau. The elevation of the Missouri Coteau is generally 300 to 500 feet higher than the Drift Plain. The Missouri Coteau is characterized by end moraine hills, non-integrated drainage, numerous sloughs, and lakes (Bluemle, 1979). Many poorly drained depressions receive runoff water from nearby higher areas.

The high density of wetlands, the lack of natural drainage and the rocky character of the soil have slowed the transition of the area to cultivated land. Many large remnants of native grasslands still exist in the Missouri Coteau where cattle ranching competes with cultivation as the predominant use of the land. The high density of wetlands and mixed grass prairie which developed on the glacial sediments of the Missouri Coteau support an abundance of waterfowl and other marsh dependent birds.


The Red River Valley

The Red River Valley is an extremely flat plain that marks the former bed of glacial Lake Agassiz, which was once the largest fresh water lake in North America. The valley blankets a portion of land about 30–40 miles wide on either side of the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota.

The Red River Valley takes on a whole new dimension when viewed from the air. It is exceptionally flat, but it is also marked by oxbows, grooves, spring pits, differential compaction ridges, deltas, and other features (Bluemle and Biek).

Historically known for its fertile soil, the Red River Valley was the birthplace of large-scale farming methods, known as Bonanza farms. Bonanza farms were born during the national financial crisis of 1873 (Bluemle). Much of the land is still intensively farmed today.


The Coteau Slope

The Coteau Slope is differentiated from the Missouri Coteau by nearly complete, integrated drainage that flows westward toward the Missouri River (Clayton, 1962). Generally, the glacial sediment is thinner in the Coteau Slope. Thinner glacial sediment and less rocky character in many areas of the Coteau slope allow for increased cultivation.

Grasslands remaining in the area represent mixed grass prairie with many plant species in common with the short grass prairie to the west. Wetland density is much lower than in the Missouri Coteau; however, some wetlands are not associated with natural drainage and are extremely valuable to waterfowl and marsh related birds.

Literature Cited

Bluemle, J.P. 1979. Geology of Dickey and LaMoure Counties. ND Geological Survey Bulletin 70-Part 1.

Clayton, L. 1962. Glacial Geology of Logan and McIntosh Counties North Dakota. ND Geological Survey Bulletin 37.






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