Potholes, Prairie and More

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Historically, the landscape of northeastern South Dakota consisted of a vast expanse of tall and mixed grass prairie with numerous shallow and deep wetlands.  A rich assortment of native plants and wildlife existed, that evolved with and were maintained by fire, periodic defoliation by large herds of grazing animals, and the climate. Today the grassland habitat is fragmented, many wetlands drained, and trees planted in shelterbelts.

  • Wildlife

    White-tailed deer buck. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

    Wildlife communities have changed significantly since European settlement.  At one time elk, antelope, grey wolf, black bear, otter, and marten occurred in this area.  White-tailed deer were once very rare but are now quite common.

    The current mix of grasslands, wetlands, woodlands, and cropland attracts a wide variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and other invertebrates.

  • Prairie Potholes

    View of prairie potholes from the air. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

    Waubay Wetland Management District is located in an area of North America known as the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).  As glaciers scraped across the landscape they gouged out millions of basins which filled with water when the massive ice sheets retreated. Interspersed with grasslands, this landscape makes up only 10% of the breeding habitat in North America but produces 50% of the continent's waterfowl.  

    Prairie wetlands are dynamic habitats. They range in size from tiny puddles to large glacial lakes, they may be wet for a week or for many years, and vegetation can vary from tiny floating duckweed to a forest of phragmites (frag my teas). The prairie pothole wetland complexes and associated grasslands are an integral component of the prairie landscape, providing a wide array of ecological, social, and economic benefits. 

  • Native Prairie

    colorful native prairie scene with grasses and wildflowers. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

    The Great Plains of North America once covered over a million square miles through the center of the continent. These vast grasslands were shaped under disturbances such as fire, repeated grazing, and frequent droughts. The eastern third of this prairie ecosystem, from Manitoba, to Illinois and south to Texas, is known as the tallgrass prairie region. Tallgrass prairie once stretched across almost 200 million acres, but today, less than 1% of the original tallgrass prairie remains.

    The rich soils that developed over hundreds or thousands of years combined with a gently rolling topography, made the region perfect for agriculture. When John Deere patented his plow made of steel in 1865, native prairie didn’t have a chance. Within 10 years, from 1860-1870, most of the tallgrass prairie was gone.

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  • Oak Savannas

    CCC era fire shelter at Waubay NWR surrounded by fall trees. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

    The bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is one of the most widely distributed oaks in North America. They grow in a variety of habitats but tend to prefer drier and cooler sites and seem to tolerate drought conditions better than other tree species. They can live 300-400 years and grow up to 130 feet. 

    When fire is excluded from prairies, bur oaks can be one of the first trees to encroach on the grasslands. Indeed, once the bur oak reaches about 12 years old, it can persist easily in frequently burned areas and was once an important component of oak savannas. These savannas once covered about 32 million acres in the Midwest but only about 6400 acres of high quality oak savanna remains. Today, bur oaks are mostly found around the edges of lakes and in the coulees that form as water descends on the edges of the Coteau.

    Woodlands form in the absence of fire, with basswood, green ash, and hackberry often shading out young oaks, eventually changing the composition. 

    Acorns, in addition to providing the next generation of oaks, are eaten by a wide variety of birds, mammals, and even insects.

  • Threatened and Endangered Plants

    Western prairie fringed orchid. Photo by USFWS

    The western prairie fringed orchid is the only known federally threatened plant species that may be present in this area.  It occurs in moist tallgrass prairies and sedge meadows. The major reason for its decline is the conversion of native prairie habitat to cropland and tame pastures. Heavy grazing, early haying, lack of fire, and noxious weed infestations can all have detrimental effects on this orchid.