Spring Comes Late to the Prairies

Written by Pam Garrettson
Thursday, May 09, 2013

Pam Garrettson.We started the ground survey portion of the Western Dakotas\Eastern Montana crew area on May 7th, about a week later than normal. Delayed starts are typical of the prairie crew areas this year, where a cold and snowy spring kept wetlands frozen, and set back duck breeding behavior. Survey timing is based on duck activity and should not commence until early-nesting species have settled on territories. Hence the later survey starts. This crew area tends to run about 3-7 days earlier than others. My colleague Brent West and I are set to survey portions of the much larger transects that the air crew will fly. This provides a correction factor for waterfowl not seen from the plane. We’ll keep you posted on how things are looking here; be sure to check for updates from other crew areas to get the big picture.

A couple of years ago, a woman in Sissenton, South Dakota told me she thought the Dakotas should have been split into Eastern and Western Dakota, not North and South. The natural boundary is the Missouri River, and the differences are geological and biological as well as sociological and political. Here are some generalities:

 East  West
 Wet (at least lately)  Dry
 Flat  Hilly (rugged and with higher elevations)
 Few people  Even fewer
 Row-crop farming  Cattle and sheep ranching
 Seed caps  Cowboy hats (for work, not just for fashion)  
 Liberal (hey, it's all relative)    Conservative
 Natural wetlands  Artificial wetlands


The latter feature is one reason we survey “west-river.” Here’s a case where human intervention has created duck habitat. Because it is so dry out here, providing livestock with water is challenging. So ranchers frequently build small earthen dams in the middle of streams that catch and hold water even when the stream runs dry. These stock dams, and the streams that feed them, will comprise the vast majority of the wetlands we count west-river. Without stock dams there would be far less water on the landscape. With enough water, the grasslands can provide good nesting habitat, and the predominance of coyotes, rather than foxes, means that nest success is typically higher here than it is east of the Missouri.

However, on our first two days we found very little water on the air-ground segments we surveyed in west-central South Dakota. Many streams were completely dry, and even many large stock dams had low or no water. Not surprisingly, we counted relatively few ducks. This portion of the crew area missed most of the winter precipitation that other areas got. We’ll see how it looks as we move north. I always caution folks to check updates from the air crew for a bigger picture, but right now, our view from the ground is a lot of ground and not much water.

Driving by this dilapidated windmill and Buffalo makes you imagine these plains 100 years ago.

Driving by this dilapidated windmill and Buffalo makes you imagine these plains 100 years ago. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

Pam Garrettson walking back through completely dried up stock dam.

Pam Garrettson walking back through completely dried up stock dam. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

This wetland is dry like many we have seen.

This wetland is dry like many we have seen. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

We have seen plenty of North America's fastest land mammal.

We have seen plenty of North America's fastest land mammal. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

Beef - it's what's for dinner.  We haven't eaten a vegetable for days.

Beef - it's what's for dinner. We haven't eaten a vegetable for days. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

Typical stream around Fairpoint, South Dakota.  Most are dry.

Typical stream around Fairpoint, South Dakota. Most are dry. Photo by Brent West, US FWS