For centuries, North Dakota's native grasslands were perpetuated by constant disturbances: drought, flood, wind, fire, and massive herds of wild grazers and browsers, especially bison. Grasses and forbs blanketed nearly all the prairie, except about 3-5% that was covered by brush, mostly snowberry. However, by the 1970's, snowberry occupied 50-80% of the prairie, with the remaining native grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome.
Present day grasslands remain subject to drought, flood, and wind, much like the past. However, two main components have changed. Bison were replaced with cattle, which browse and graze differently, and perhaps most importantly the suppression of fire permitted woody species to expand. Not surprisingly, fire is an important tool to reduce brush and increase grasses and forbs.
Prairie wetlands are mostly managed by nature-flood to drought. Surprising to most, it is as important for prairie wetlands to be dry as it is for them to be filled with water. During droughts, wetland-bottoms are exposed to air, permitting decomposition of organic matter. Without the dry cycle, the water's oxygen is used to decompose organic matter; an oxygen-depleted wetland cannot support quantities of aquatic invertebrates, the main food for most breeding water birds and their young.
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