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Montana Field Guides

Great Plains Mixedgrass Prairie

Provisional State Rank: S4
(see reason below)

External Links

State Rank Reason
This system has been fragmented by section roads, and isovergrazed in places, but it is widespread.

General Description

The system covers much of the eastern two-thirds of Montana, occurring continuously for hundreds of square kilometers, interrupted only by wetland/riparian areas or sand prairies. Soils are primarily fine and medium-textured. The growing season averages 115 days, ranging from 100 days on the Canadian border to 130 days on the Wyoming border. Climate is typical of mid-continental regions with long severe winters and hot summers. Grasses typically comprise the greatest canopy cover, and western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) is usually dominant. Other species include thickspike wheatgrass (Elymus lanceolatus), green needlegrass (Nassella viridula), blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), and needle and thread (Hesperostipa comata). Near the Canadian border in north-central Montana, this system grades into rough fescue (Festuca campestris) and Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) grasslands. Remnants of shortbristle needle and thread (Hesperostipa curtiseta) dominated vegetation are found in northernmost Montana and North Dakota, and are associated with productive sites, now mostly converted to farmland. Forb diversity is typically high. In areas of southeastern and central Montana where sagebrush steppe borders the mixed grass prairie, common plant associations include Wyoming big sagebrush-western wheatgrass (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis/ Pascopyrum smithii). Fire and grazing are the primary drivers of this system. Drought can also impact it, in general favoring the shortgrass component at the expense of the mid-height grasses. With intensive grazing, cool season exotics such as Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), smooth brome (Bromus inermis), and Japanese brome (Bromus japonicus) increase in dominance; both of these rhizomatous species have been shown to markedly decrease species diversity. Previously cultivated acres that have been re-vegetated with non-native plants have been transformed into associations such as Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis)/western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) or into pure crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) stands.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Glaciated, herbaceous, shallow soils, loam soil texture

Similar Systems

This system is found throughout the eastern two-thirds of Montana where wetlands, sand prairie, lakes, and potholes are absent.

Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 69,178 square kilometers are classified as Great Plains Mixedgrass Prairie 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, Garfield, Glacier, Golden Valley, Hill, Judith Basin, Lewis and Clark, Liberty, Mccone, Meagher, Musselshell, Park, Petroleum, Phillips, Pondera, Powder River, Prairie, Richland, Roosevelt, Rosebud, Sheridan, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Teton, Toole, Treasure, Valley, Wheatland, Wibaux, Yellowstone

Spatial Pattern

This system is found on uplands, slopes, and creek bottoms throughout the northwestern Great Plains. Precipitation ranges from 250 to 460 millimeters (10 to 16 inches) with most of the precipitation occurring during late spring and early summer months. Soils are typically Mollisolls and Entisols. The growing season averages 115 days, and ranges from 100 days on the Canadian border to 130 days on the Wyoming border. Climate is typical of mid-continental regions with long severe winters and hot summers. Typical land uses are grazing or dry farming. Wildlife such as mule deer, sage grouse, pheasants, and antelope are common on uncultivated grasslands.


Dynamic vegetative communities make up this diverse prairie ecosystem. Vegetation is a mixture of mid and short grasses, generally having an average height of 30 centimeters (12 inches). Throughout the Montana portion of this system, rhizomatous western wheatgrass is the dominant component, especially on finer-textured soils and where the moisture balance is favorable. It decreases under prolonged or grazing regimes. Grasses were typically used by large herbivores such as bison, but since European settlement, herbivores such as cattle and sheep have been the primary users of the vegetation.

Near the Canadian border and at higher elevations with greater precipitation, this system grades into grasslands dominated by rough fescue and Idaho fescue. These two tussock grasses are indicative of more mesic sites and characterize the Rocky Mountain Lower Montane, Foothill and Valley Grassland system. In areas of southeastern Montana where the sagebrush steppe lands border the mixed grass prairie, common plant associations include silver sagebrush /western wheatgrass. In these border regions, shrub-loving wildlife such as antelope, mule deer, and sage grouse are common. Previously cultivated acres may have been re-vegetated by non-native plants creating associations such as Kentucky bluegrass/western wheatgrassand pure stands of crested wheatgrass. Sites with a strong component of green needlegrass indicate a more favorable moisture balance, although this is one of the most palatable of the mid-grasses. Needle and thread is also an important component; it increases with coarser soil textures, or under heavy grazing at the expense of western wheatgrass. Extreme overgrazing can result in the loss of western wheatgrass from the system, followed by drastic reductions in needle and thread and ultimately, the dominance of blue grama, Sandberg’s bluegrass (Poa secunda), and prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha). Common forbs within this system include yarrow (Achillea millefolium), scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), western sagewort, (Artemisia ludoviciana), boreal sagewort (Artemisia frigida), silver lupine (Lupinus argenteus), fuzzy beardtongue (Penstemon eriantherus), shining penstemon (Penstemon nitidus), prairie cinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis), Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis) anddalea (Dalea species). Shrub species may include western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), silver sage and Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. wyomingensis).

National Vegetation Classification Switch to Full NVC View

Adapted from US National Vegetation Classification

A0918 Elaeagnus commutata Wet Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001099 Elaeagnus commutata - Pascopyrum smithii Wet Shrubland
A3183 Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata - Artemisia tridentata ssp. Xericensis Mesic Steppe & Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001530 Artemisia tridentata - Festuca idahoensis Shrub Grassland
A3207 Artemisia tridentata ssp. spiciformis - Artemisia tridentata ssp. Vaseyana Steppe & Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001531 Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana - Festuca campestris Shrub Grassland
A3586 Artemisia cana ssp. Cana Wet Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001556 Artemisia cana ssp. cana - Pascopyrum smithii Shrub Wet Meadow
A3815 Calamagrostis canadensis - Calamagrostis stricta - Poa palustris Wet Meadow Alliance
CEGL001659 Poa palustris Wet Meadow
A3963 Amelanchier alnifolia Central Rocky Mountain Montane-Foothill Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001065 Amelanchier alnifolia - Pseudoroegneria spicata / Bunchgrass Shrubland
A3986 Festuca campestris - Festuca idahoensis Mesic Grassland Alliance
CEGL001627 Festuca campestris Grassland
CEGL001629 Festuca campestris / Pseudoroegneria spicata Grassland
CEGL005875 Festuca campestris / Festuca idahoensis Grassland
A4029 Hesperostipa curtiseta - Elymus lanceolatus Grassland Alliance
CEGL002253 Hesperostipa curtiseta / Elymus lanceolatus Grassland
CEGL003789 Hesperostipa curtiseta / Pascopyrum smithii Grassland
A4031 Pascopyrum smithii - Nassella viridula Northwestern Great Plains Grassland Alliance
CEGL001579 Pascopyrum smithii / Bouteloua gracilis / Carex filifolia Grassland
CEGL001583 Pascopyrum smithii / Nassella viridula Grassland
CEGL002034 Pascopyrum smithii / Hesperostipa comata Central Mixedgrass Grassland
A4032 Pseudoroegneria spicata - Pascopyrum smithii - Hesperostipa comata Grassland Alliance
CEGL001663 Pseudoroegneria spicata / Bouteloua curtipendula Grassland
CEGL001664 Pseudoroegneria spicata / Bouteloua gracilis Grassland
CEGL001675 Pseudoroegneria spicata / Pascopyrum smithii Grassland
A4033 Hesperostipa comata Northwestern Great Plains Grassland Alliance
CEGL002037 Hesperostipa comata / Bouteloua gracilis / Carex filifolia Grassland
A4034 Schizachyrium scoparium Northwestern Great Plains Grassland Alliance
CEGL001682 Schizachyrium scoparium / Carex inops ssp. Heliophila Grassland
CEGL001683 Schizachyrium scoparium / Muhlenbergia cuspidata Grassland
A4035 Juniperus horizontalis - Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda / Schizachyrium scoparium Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001394 Juniperus horizontalis - Schizachyrium scoparium Dwarf-shrubland
A4036 Prunus virginiana - Symphoricarpos occidentalis - Amelanchier alnifolia Great Plains Shrubland Alliance
CEGL001131 Symphoricarpos occidentalis Shrubland
A4037 Festuca idahoensis - Carex inops ssp. Heliophila Great Plains Grassland Alliance
CEGL001610 Festuca idahoensis / Carex inops ssp. Heliophila Grassland
A4043 Festuca altaica Northern Great Plains Grassland Alliance
A4096 Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda / Festuca campestris - Festuca idahoensis Shrub-steppe Alliance
CEGL001502 Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda - Festuca idahoensis Shrub Grassland
CEGL001503 Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda - Festuca campestris Shrub Grassland
*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

Historically, frequent indigenous anthropogenic fires and large numbers of migrating bison and other herbivores contributed to plant species and plant community diversity within this system. In the Northern Great Plains, pre-settlement fire frequency occurred at intervals ranging from 3 to 20 years (Umbanhowar, 1996). The elimination of bison and frequent fire intervals disrupted plant community dynamics, leading to a decrease in plant community diversity.

Communities associated with this ecological system are adapted to soils that may be dry throughout the growing season. They may also occur on shallow soils, particularly Entisols, with parent material and/or bedrock formation close to the surface. Plant communities occurring on Entisols may be drought tolerant, grazing resistant, and winter hardy. Deep-rooted communities are more generally associated with Mollisols. Typically, these communities are tolerant of managed grazing practices, moderate-intensity fires, and fallowed wheat-cropping practices. Prolonged, extreme drought is a major threat to this system, reducing the density and cover of short grasses by as much as 80 percent and the bunchgrasses and native forbs to almost zero (Albertson, 1937). During prolonged drought, native forbs are rapidly replaced by non-native invasive forbs. During the severe droughts of the 1930’s and 1950’s, basal area cover of grasses decreased from 80 to less than 10 percent under moderate grazing regimes in 3 to 5 years (Barbour and Billings, 2000). In short, the dynamics of species changes in this system is a function of climate, but the magnitude of these changes is greatly influenced by the intensity of grazing and fire frequency.

Mixed grass prairie regions that have been disturbed by previous cultivation or over-grazing may support large numbers of invasive or non-native plant species. Control of these species can occur through managed grazing practices, chemicals, or biological mechanisms such as insects or fire. In the absence of fire, regions of the mixed grass prairie may be susceptible to woody plant or cacti invasion. Controlled burning practices every four years can control plant expansion. Landowners looking to manage for wildlife may choose to burn less often than livestock managers, promoting availability of woody vegetation for wildlife species.

Restoration Considerations

Restoration strategies for this system will depend on site condition; occurrences in good condition can be restored by re-introducing prescribed fires. Periodic prescribed fires in late spring can improve productivity, contribute to species diversity and prevent encroachment of shrub communities, especially Wyoming sagebrush. Prescribed fires and appropriate grazing practices are important restoration tools to improve mixed grass prairie production and contribute to plant community diversity.

Occurrences that are severely degraded, formerly cultivated or reseeded to non-native species will require a combination of restoration techniques to create suitable conditions for native species establishment and natural recruitment. Some restoration sites may require the reintroduction of native dominant grass and forb species. In the past, large areas of this system have been planted to non-native grasses such as crested wheatgrass and smooth brome for farmland reclamation and erosion control. This has resulted in decreased mixed grass prairie species diversity and a reduced ability of native species to colonize and compete on these disturbed, reclaimed sites. Site preparation will requirenoxious species eradication and control for at least 2 seasons before and after reseeding. Pre-restoration techniques are largely accomplished by a combination of fall burning, tilling and in some cases, herbicide applications and addition of nitrogen. Native seedling density has been shown to be 20 times greater when a combination of these techniques is used (Wilson and Gerry, 1994).

Site preparation should involve soil disking techniques that discourage uniform soils and seed beds. Feathering and smoothing topsoil may not be appropriate in rough fescue grassland. Uniform soils may benefit invasive species such as Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome, while roughened conditions may inhibit their growth, allowing rough fescue and its associated grasses to establish more readily (Desserud, 2006). Increasing the intensity of tilling has increased native species density and establishment (Wilson and Gerry, 1994).

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
Natureserve Western Ecology Group

Montana Version Authors
T. Luna, L.K. Vance

Version Date

  • Classification and Map Identifiers

    Cowardin Wetland Classification: Not applicable

    NatureServe Identifiers:
    Element Global ID 28531
    System Code CES303.674, Northwestern Great Plains Mixedgrass Prairie

    National Land Cover Dataset:
    71: Grassland/Herbaceous

    7114: Northwestern Great Plains Mixedgrass Prairie

  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Barbour, Michael G. 2000. North American terrestrial vegetation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Desserud, Peggy Ann. 2006. Restoration of rough fescue grassland on pipelines in southwestern Alberta. Lethbridge, Alta: Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Rangeland Management Branch, Public Lands and Forests Division.

    • Erickson, Albert W., and D. B. Siniff. 1963. A statistical evaluation of factors influencing aerial survey results on brown bears. Anchorage, Alaska: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

    • Albertson, F. W. 1937. "Ecology of Mixed Prairie in West Central Kansas". Ecological Monographs. 7 (4): 481-547.
    • Comer, P. (editor), L. Allen, S. Cooper, D. Faber-Langendoen, and G. Jones. 1999. Selected shrubland and grassland communities of the northern Great Plains. Report to the Nebraska National Forest. The Nature Conservancy.
    • 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.
    • Montana chapter of the wildlife society. 1976. Proceedings of the annual meeting.
    • Umbanhowar, Charles Edward. 1996. "Recent Fire History of the Northern Great Plains". American Midland Naturalist. 135 (1): 115-121.
    • Wilson, S. D., and A. K. Gerry. 1995. "Strategies for Mixed-Grass Prairie Restoration: Herbicide, Tilling, and Nitrogen Manipulation". Restoration Ecology. 3 (4): 290-298.

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Citation for data on this website:
Great Plains Mixedgrass Prairie — Northwestern Great Plains Mixedgrass Prairie.  Montana Field Guide.  Retrieved on , from