Great Plains Prairie Pothole
Provisional State Rank
Prairie potholes occur in shallow depressions scraped out by glaciers in the northern Great Plains of Montana. The region is characterized by a glacial landscape of end moraines, stagnation moraines, outwash plains and lake plains. The glacial drift forms steep to slight local relief with fine-grained, silty to clayey soils. Limestone, sandstone, and shales are the predominant parent materials, and highly mineralized water can discharge from these rocks. The hydrology of this system is complex, and the concentration of dissolved solids results in water that ranges from fresh to extremely saline, with chemical characteristics varying seasonally and annually. Most prairie potholes and associated lakes contain alkaline water, which accumulates rapidly in during spring months, especially when soil frost is sufficiently deep to forestall all infiltration until after the ground thaws. Most water loss occurs through evapotranspiration, which exceeds precipitation during summer months. Vegetation within this system is highly influenced by hydrology, salinity and dynamics. Potholes can vary in depth and duration, which determines the local gradient of plant species. Similarly, species found within individual potholes will be strongly influenced by periodic drought and wet periods. The wettest sites, where water stands through summer, are characterized by hardstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus), often occurring as a near monoculture, or with softstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani) or common threesquare (Schoenoplectus pungens) along slightly drier margins. In permanently flooded sites, aquatic buttercups (Ranunculus species), aquatic smartweeds (Polygonum species), pondweeds (Potamogeton species) or duckweeds (Lemna species) are common. At the drier extremes, pothole vegetation generally occurs in a concentric pattern from a wetter middle dominated by spikerush (Eleocharis species) through a drier ring of foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) and an outer margin of western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) or thickspike wheatgrass (Elymus lanceolatus). Prairie potholes are considered to be the most important breeding habitat for waterfowl in North America, with production estimates ranging from 50% to 80% of the continent’s main species. However, the extreme variability in climate and pothole water levels also results in extreme fluctuations in waterfowl populations from year to year. Prairie pothole wetlands also support a diverse assemblage of water-dependent birds.
Lowland, herbaceous depressional, pothole, isolated wetland, temperate
In Montana, most prairie potholes are concentrated north of the HiLine and Route 2, from the Blackfeet Reservation to the North Dakota border, although individual potholes occur across the Northwest Glaciated Plains north of the Missouri River. Elsewhere, this system occurs throughout the northern Great Plains from central Iowa northeast to southern Saskatchewan and Alberta. It encompasses approximately 870,000 square kilometers with approximately 80% of its range in southern Canada. It is also prevalent in North Dakota, South Dakota, and northern Minnesota.
Ecological System Distribution
Approximately 145 square kilometers are classified as Great Plains Prairie Pothole in the 2017 Montana Land Cover layers.
Grid on map is based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map boundaries.
Montana Counties of Occurrence
Blaine, Daniels, Hill, Liberty, Phillips, Roosevelt, Sheridan, Toole
The prairie pothole ecological system is dominated by closed basins that receive irregular inputs of water from the surroundings and export water as groundwater. The climate is characterized by mid-continental temperature and precipitation extremes. The region is distinguished by a thin mantle of glacial drift with overlying stratified sedimentary rocks of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic ages; these form a glacial landscape of end moraines, stagnation moraines, outwash plains and lake plains. The glacial drift is from 30 meters to 120 meters thick and forms steep to slight local relief with fine-grained, silty to clayey soils. Limestone, sandstone, and shales are predominant, and highly mineralized water can discharge from these rocks. Precipitation and runoff from snowmelt are often the principal water sources, with groundwater inflow as a secondary source. Evapotranspiration is the primary source of water loss, with seepage loss secondary. The hydrology of this system is complex, and the concentration of dissolved solids results in water that ranges from fresh to extremely saline, with chemical characteristics varying seasonally and annually. Most prairie potholes and associated lakes contain water that is alkaline (pH >7.4). Surrounding uplands are generally in cropland (small grains), hay, or range.
Prairie potholes are considered to be the most important breeding habitat for waterfowl in North America, with production estimates ranging from 50% to 80% of the continent’s main species. However, the extreme variability in climate and pothole water levels also results in extreme fluctuations in waterfowl populations from year to year. Prairie wetlands also support a diverse assemblage of water-dependent birds including Montana species of concern such as the black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), white-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi), Franklin’s gull (Larus pipixcan), common tern (Sterna hirundo), Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri), and black tern (Chlidonias niger). American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) feed extensively on tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) found in prairie potholes. Sparsely-vegetated alkali potholes, especially in Sheridan County, are attractive to piping plovers (Charadrius melodus).
Vegetation within this system is highly influenced by hydrology, salinity and dynamics. This system includes elements of emergent marshes and wet, sedge meadows that develop into a pattern of concentric rings. Potholes can vary in depth and duration, which determines the local gradient of species. Similarly, plant species found within individual potholes will be strongly influenced by periodic drought and wet periods. The wettest sites, where water stands into or through summer, are characterized by hardstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus), often occurring as a near monoculture, or with a fringe of softstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani) or common threesquare (Schoenoplectus pungens) along slightly drier margins. Cattails (Typha spp) are also seen in these wetter systems, although they are typically a minor component. During spring or in permanently flooded sites, aquatic buttercups (Ranunculus species), aquatic smartweeds (Polygonum species), pondweeds (Potamogeton species) or duckweeds (Lemna species) may be abundant. At the drier extremes, pothole vegetation generally occurs in a concentric pattern from a wetter middle dominated by spikerush (Eleocharisspecies) through a drier ring of foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) and an outer margin of western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) or thickspike wheatgrass (Elymus lanceolatus) (Hansen et al, 1996; Lesica 1989). Grazing, draining, and mowing of this system can influence vegetation distribution.
Adapted from US National Vegetation Classification
A3895 Schoenoplectus americanus - Schoenoplectus acutus - Schoenoplectus californicus Marsh Alliance
CEGL001843 Schoenoplectus maritimus Marsh
2 C02 Scrub and Herb Vegetation
2.C S44 Shrub and Herb Wetland
2.C.4 F013 Temperate to Polar Freshwater Marsh, Wet Meadow, and Shrubland
2.C.4.Nb D031 Western North American Temperate and Boreal Freshwater Marsh, Wet Meadow and Shrubland
2.C.4.Nb.1 M888 Arid West Interior Freshwater Marsh
2.C.4.Nb.1.a G531 Arid West Interior Freshwater Marsh
A3895 Schoenoplectus americanus - Schoenoplectus acutus - Schoenoplectus californicus Marsh Alliance Western Emergent Bulrush Marsh
CEGL001843 Schoenoplectus maritimus Marsh
*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
Flooding is the primary natural dynamic influencing this system. Snowmelt in the spring often floods this system and can cause the prominent potholes within the system to overflow. Greater than normal precipitation can flood out emergent vegetation and/or increase herbivory by animal species such as muskrats. Periodic wet and droughty periods cause shifts in vegetation. Vegetation zones are evident, and each zone responds to changing environmental conditions. Draining and conversion to agriculture can also significantly impact this system. Much of the original extent of this system has been converted to cropland, and many remaining examples are under pressure to be drained.
Livestock use of potholes is limited by low palatability of characteristic species, although open water attracts livestock for both drinking and cooling. When upland vegetation becomes sparse, cattle will graze on spikerush and bulrush. Wet soils are easily trampled. Grazing, when properly planned and executed, can be a management tool, preventing cattail encroachment into open water, limiting the spread of exotics such as crested wheat (Agropyron cristatum) and smooth brome (Bromus inermis), and avoiding excessive litter buildup. Prescribed burning can be used to the same ends. Prairie potholes are primarily threatened by crop agriculture, by unrestricted grazing, and by oil and gas development. Region-wide, nearly half of this system has been lost.
In Great Plains prairie pothole wetland systems where water has been drained or altered, the original hydrology of the system must be restored. If water levels are restored, re-growth and re-colonization from dormant rhizomatous root systems of common emergent species can occur within a few years. Many of the characteristic species found in marsh systems are rhizomatous, thus exhibit excellent erosion control properties. However, species that are infrequent in these wetland systems may not re-occur or re-establish in a given time frame. The major barriers to prairie pothole restoration are isolation, infrequent flooding and invasive species. These factors must be addressed during the planning and long term management of restored prairie pothole wetlands.
During restoration, cattle grazing needs to eliminated or controlled to allow regrowth, recolonization and resprouting from existing root systems. In some cases, if hydric soils are heavily altered due to pugging or compaction, addition of organic material may be needed to facilitate plant recolonization.
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:
- 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);
- Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
- Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
- 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: mtnhp.org/requests
) 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.
- 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.
- Native Species Commonly Associated with this Ecological System
- Native Species Occasionally Associated with this Ecological System
Original Concept Authors
Natureserve Western Ecology Group
Montana Version Authors
L.K. Vance, C. McIntyre, T. Luna
- Classification and Map Identifiers
Cowardin Wetland Classification:
||Seasonally flooded, semi-permanently flooded or permanently flooded
|Geographically Isolated Wetland
|Element Global ID
||CES303.661, Great Plains Prairie Pothole
9203: Great Plains Prairie Pothole
- Additional ReferencesLegend: View Online Publication
Do you know of a citation we're missing?
- Hansen, P. L., R. D. Pfister, K. Boggs, B. J. Cook, J. Joy, and D. K. Hinckley. 1995. Classification and management of Montana's riparian and wetland sites. Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station, School of Forestry, University of Montana, Miscellaneous Publication No. 54. 646 pp. + posters.
- Lesica, P. 1989. The vegetation and flora of glaciated prairie potholes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Montana. Unpublished report to Big Sky Field Office, The Nature Conservancy, Helena, MT, 26 pp.