South Dakota Conservation Summary

By Dave Ode

South Dakota spans a slice of the northern Great Plains where the skies still fill with migrating waterfowl, where the thunder of bison hooves can be still be felt, and where pine-clad mountains still echo to the sound of bugling elk. It is this way because people have cared about conserving the land and its wildlife. In the early twentieth century bison, elk and waterfowl were driven to near extinction and it took the rest of the twentieth century for their populations to recover. As we enter the twenty-first century the conservation challenges are just as great and can be illustrated in three major regions of South Dakota: the prairie pothole region in the northeast, the badlands region of the southwest, and the Black Hills.

Prairie Pothole Region

The landscape of northeastern South Dakota was shaped by the last glaciers which left behind huge blocks of ice scattered across the glacial till and destined to become lake and wetland basins of all sizes and shapes. For the last ten-thousand years, this mosaic of fertile prairie grasslands and wetland basins have fed, sheltered, and hatched billions of migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and grassland birds. With market hunting, wetland drainage and grassland loss beginning in the late 1800s, many of these bird populations plummeted. Thanks to hunters who imposed taxes upon themselves through the Federal Duck Stamp program, the Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration Program, and state hunting license fees, plus the efforts of private conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, money was marshaled to conserve wetlands and grasslands. Waterfowl refuges like Waubay, Sand Lake and Lake Andes were established in the 1930s and 1940s, and in 1959 McCarlson Waterfowl Production Area, in Day County became the first property purchased under the Federal small wetlands program. Many generalist species like mallards, Canada geese and great egrets have largely recovered, while others with more specialized needs like canvasbacks, willets and LeConte’s sparrows have not. In addition to habitat loss, habitat quality issues have emerged as a major problem. Exotic invasive species like smooth bromegrass, hybrid cattail and Asian carp continue to degrade native habitats. Only through improved habitat management can species like the rare Dakota skipper butterfly find a future on the prairies of northeastern South Dakota. Fortunately agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, along with private conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, are working to improve prairie and wetland management to provide future homes for all prairie wildlife.

White River Badlands

While much of the modern Great Plains landscape is dominated by cropland or livestock, large areas of the badlands of southwestern South Dakota provide a home for wildlife species that are unwelcome elsewhere. Conata Basin, bounded on the north by the 300-foot-high “Badlands Wall” and on the south by the White River, is the most successful black-footed ferret reintroduction site in the world. Black-footed ferrets are among the rarest mammals on earth. They are a specialized predator that depends almost exclusively on the prairie dogs that have been traditionally regarded as pests and thus eliminated from much of their former range. The Conata Basin is home to about 26,000 acres of black-tailed prairie dog colonies, making it not only an ideal place for black-footed ferrets but also the vortex of a political controversy over public land management and private property rights. Two private ranches totaling several thousand acres have recently been purchased by The Nature Conservancy in an effort to both conserve biological diversity and to reduce management conflicts.

The mixed-grass prairie and badland outcrops of southwestern South Dakota provide habitat for far more species than just prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. Other locally extirpated animals like bison, bighorn sheep and swift fox have been also been reintroduced. Regionally endemic plants like Barr’s milkvetch, Dakota wild buckwheat, and side-saddle bladderpod inhabit some of the mostly barren rock outcrops. The White River abounds with sturgeon chub, a rare fish species that requires turbid waters for survival; and along dry washouts of certain intermittent badland streams a tiger beetle new to science (Cicindela nevadica makosika) has been recently discovered by a scientist with the South Dakota Natural Heritage Program.

Black Hills

Lying a couple hundred miles east of the front range of the Rocky Mountains, the Black Hills are a forested island in a grassland sea, with a geology and origin similar to the Rockies. While most of the Black Hills forest is dominated by Ponderosa pine, other forest types dominated by white spruce, quaking aspen and bur oak occupy more limited habitats, as do several unique grassland and riparian wetland vegetation types. Caves provide habitat for rare bats and invertebrates, and coldwater streams maintain a biota more similar to the Rocky Mountains than to the surrounding plains. Because of its diverse habitats, fully two-thirds of the plant species found in South Dakota occur within the Black Hills. Due to their relative isolation, some Black Hills animals like the redbelly snake, fringe-tailed myotis bat, Atlantis fritillary butterfly, and dark-eyed junco have specialized into unique or incipient subspecies.

While Black Hills populations of big game animals like elk, bighorn sheep and mountain lion have largely recovered to their former abundance, other species like the American dipper, meadow jumping mouse, and longnose sucker continue to struggle. These three species depend upon healthy streams and riparian zones, which continue to be threatened by a host of factors ranging from pollution to land use to exotic species.

South Dakota’s Future

Never before has there been such a great potential for citizen science to help with the conservation and recovery of our biological treasures. Sharing of knowledge has become as fast as the speed of light. While the computer age has brought all these resources to our finger-tips, the challenges for living, respiring wild plants and animals have changed little over the past millennia and will remain much the same for the new one. They all need a place to live on this shrinking planet. Yet, grasslands are still being converted to cropland or housing developments, at the rate of more than 50,000 acres per year just in South Dakota. Wetlands are still being drained, mountains are still being leveled, and rivers are still being sucked dry, all to supply resources to our ever-demanding human population. Exotic invasive plants are degrading our prairie and wetland habitats, while exotic diseases threaten to annihilate prairie entire species. Countering threats like these will take all the ingenuity, new technology and old-fashioned hard work and sacrifice that have historically been needed to restore wildlife populations and to preserve the natural wonders of their habitats.


Dave Ode works for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department.

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