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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Great Plains Badlands

Provisional State Rank: S5

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General Description

The Western Great Plains Badlands ecological system occurs within the mixed grass and sand prairie regions of eastern and southeastern Montana, where the land lies well above or below its local base level, shaped by the carving action of streams, erosion, and erosible parent material. It is easily recognized by its rugged, eroded, and often colorful land formations, and the relative absence of vegetative cover. In those areas with vegetation, species can include scattered individuals of many dryland shrubs or herbaceous taxa, including curlycup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), threadleaf snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) (especially with overuse and grazing), greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), Gardner’s saltbush (Atriplex gardneri), buckwheat (Eriogonum species), plains muhly (Muhlenbergia cuspidata), bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), and Hooker’s sandwort (Arenaria hookeri). Patches of sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) can also occur. Climate is typical of mid continental regions with long severe winters and warm summers. Precipitation ranges from 7 to 14 inches per year, with two-thirds of the precipitation falling during the summer, and a third falling in the spring. The sedimentary parent material of exposed rocks and the resultant eroded clay soils are derived from Cretaceous sea beds and are often fossil-rich. Dominant soil types are in the order Entisols. These mineral soils are found primarily on uplands, slopes, and creek bottoms and are easily erodible. The growing season is short, averaging 115 days, with a range from 100 days on the Canadian border to 130 days on the Wyoming border. Land use is limited, except for off-highway vehicle recreation and incidental grazing.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Highly eroded landforms; less than 10% vegetated cover.

Similar Systems

This system is scattered throughout eastern Montana where eroded landscapes limit the ability of vegetation to thrive. This system is well represented in Makoshika State Park near Glendive, in the Terry Badlands north of the Yellowstone River, and at scattered locations along tributaries of the Missouri river in the northwestern Great Plains. Similar landforms on the south flank of the Pryor Mountains are classified as Inter-Mountain Basins Shale Badland.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 8,404 square kilometers are classified as Great Plains Badlands in the 2017 Montana Land Cover layers.  Grid on map is based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map boundaries.

Montana Counties of Occurrence
Big Horn, Blaine, Carbon, Carter, Cascade, Chouteau, Custer, Daniels, Dawson, Fallon, Fergus, Flathead, Garfield, Glacier, Hill, Judith Basin, Lewis and Clark, Liberty, Lincoln, Mccone, Meagher, Mineral, Missoula, Musselshell, Park, Petroleum, Phillips, Pondera, Powder River, Powell, Prairie, Ravalli, Richland, Roosevelt, Rosebud, Sanders, Sheridan, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Teton, Toole, Treasure, Valley, Wheatland, Wibaux, Yellowstone

Spatial Pattern
Large patch

These systems are primarily found on eroded uplands, slopes, and creek bottoms throughout the northwestern Great Plains region of Montana. Soils are extremely dry and easily erodible consolidated clayey soils with bands of sandstone or isolated consolidates. The steep and deeply eroded slopes of bandland systems tend to be harsh environments, which support only species uniquely adapted to these conditions (Brown 1971). In these arid to semi-arid climates, infrequent but torrential rains cause rapid erosion, leaving a highly dissected landscape with a complex dendritic drainage pattern.


Vegetation within the Badlands region is sparse. Typically, less than 20% of the total land cover will be occupied by vegetation in this ecological system. In northeastern Montana, vegetation cover is at the higher end, but in southeastern Montana, portions of this system may have little to no vegetation. Local variations in geology, topography, and soil contribute to unique plant communities and vegetation composition (Brown 1971). Common plant associations include greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus) - Gardner’s saltbush (Atriplex gardneri) or few-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum pauciflorum) - threadleaf snakweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae). Graminoid cover is very sparse, but may include western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii), bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), and Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides). Common forbs include few-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum pauciflorum), threadleaf snakweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), Hooker’s sandwort (Arenaria hookeri), bud sagebrush (Picrothamnus desertorum), curlycup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), longleaf wormwood (Artemisia longfolia), and Nutall’s povertyweed (Monolepis nuttalliana). Other shrubs that may be present include Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis), silver sagebrush (Artemisia cana), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus and Ericameria nauseosa), and saltbush (Atriplex species).

National Vegetation Classification Switch to Full NVC View

Adapted from US National Vegetation Classification

A1046 Sarcobatus vermiculatus Intermountain Wet Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001360 Sarcobatus vermiculatus - Atriplex gardneri Wet Shrubland
A1110 Atriplex gardneri Low Scrub Alliance
CEGL001439 Atriplex gardneri - Picrothamnus desertorum Dwarf-shrubland
CEGL001440 Atriplex gardneri - Artemisia tridentata Dwarf-shrubland
CEGL001443 Atriplex gardneri - Monolepis nuttalliana Dwarf-shrubland
CEGL001445 Atriplex gardneri - Pascopyrum smithii Dwarf-shrubland
A1127 Artemisia pedatifida Low Scrub Alliance
CEGL001525 Artemisia pedatifida / Atriplex gardneri Shrubland
A1874 Artemisia longifolia Badlands Alliance
A3492 Panicum virgatum - Pascopyrum smithii Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001484 Panicum virgatum / (Pascopyrum smithii) Wet Meadow
A3590 Shepherdia argentea Wet Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001128 Shepherdia argentea Wet Shrubland
A3978 Sarcobatus vermiculatus Great Plains Badlands Alliance
CEGL001367 Sarcobatus vermiculatus - Pseudoroegneria spicata Shrubland
A3979 Eriogonum pauciflorum - Gutierrezia sarothrae Badlands Alliance
CEGL005270 Eriogonum pauciflorum / Gutierrezia sarothrae Badlands Sparse Vegetation
*Disclaimer: Alliances and Associations have not yet been finalized in the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) standard.  A complete version of the NVC for Montana can be found here.

Dynamic Processes
This system can occur where the land lies well above its local base level or below and is created by several factors, including elevation, rainfall, carving action of streams, and parent material. Vegetation communities associated with this ecological system are adapted to soils that are dry throughout the growing season. Typically soils of the badlands ecosystem are easily erodible consolidated clay or sandstone outcrops. They may also occur on shallow entisols, with parent material and/or bedrock formation close to the surface. These highly erodible soils can be strongly influenced by infrequent but often torrential rains.


Because of the erodible soils, this system is easily damaged by off-road vehicle use, which has become increasingly widespread in southeastern Montana. Limiting such use to specified areas may be necessary to preserve the more sensitive communities found in the area, such as the birdsfoot sagebrush- Gardner’s saltbush (Artemisia pedatifida - Atriplex gardneri) shrubland. In areas with more vegetation cover, heavy livestock grazing can also be detrimental.

Restoration Considerations
Eliminating off-road vehicle use will typically be necessary to restore damaged areas. In early stages of recovery, restricting grazing or implementing very light grazing regimes may be necessary to allow the sparse vegetation to recover. Supplemental planting of shrubs may be required and should be limited to microsites where available soil moisture persists into the growing season.

Species Associated with this Ecological System
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Original Concept Authors
S. Menard and K. Kindscher, mod. G. Kittel and M.S. Reid

Montana Version Authors
E. Luther, L.K. Vance

Version Date

  • Classification and Map Identifiers

    Cowardin Wetland Classification: Not applicable

    NatureServe Identifiers:
    Element Global ID 28521
    System Code CES303.663, Western Great Plains Badlands

    National Land Cover Dataset:
    31: Barren Land

    3114: Western Great Plains Badlands

  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Brown, R.W. 1971. Distribution of plant communities in southeastern Montana badlands. The American Midland Naturalist. 85(2): 458-477.
    • Comer, P., D. Faber-Langendoen, R. Evans, S. Gawler, C. Josse, G. Kittel, S. Menard, M. Pyne, M. Reid, K. Schulz, K. Snow, and J. Teague. 2003. Ecological systems of the United States: A working classification of U.S. terrestrial systems. NatureServe, Arlington, VA.
    • Von Loh, J., D. Cogan, D. Faber-Langendoen, D. Crawford, and M. Pucherelli. 1999. USGS-NPS Vegetation Mapping Program, Badlands National Park, South Dakota. USDI Bureau of Reclamation. Technical Memorandum No. 8260-99-02. Denver, CO.

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Citation for data on this website:
Great Plains Badlands — Western Great Plains Badlands.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on , from