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Scientific Name: Western Great Plains Sand Prairie
Unique Identifier: CES303.670
Classification Confidence: 1 - Strong

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Summary: Sand prairies are often considered part of the tallgrass or mixedgrass regions in the western Great Plains but can contain elements from Western Great Plains Shortgrass Prairie (CES303.672), Central Mixedgrass Prairie (CES303.659), and Northwestern Great Plains Mixedgrass Prairie (CES303.674). The largest expanse of sand prairies (approximately 5 million ha) can be found in the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota. These areas are relatively intact. The primary use of this system has been grazing (not cultivation), and areas such as the Nebraska Sandhills can experience less degeneration than other prairie systems. Although greater than 90% of the Sandhills region is privately owned, the known fragility of the soils and the cautions used by ranchers to avoid poor grazing practices have allowed for fewer significant changes in the vegetation of the Sandhills compared to other grassland systems. Nonetheless, the sustained annual grazing within pastures by cattle has altered the mix of vegetation. The unifying and controlling feature for this system is coarse-textured soils, and the dominant grasses are well-adapted to this condition. Soils in the sand prairies can be relatively undeveloped and are highly permeable. Soil texture and drainage along with a species' rooting morphology, photosynthetic physiology, and mechanisms to avoid transpiration loss are highly important in determining the composition of the sand prairies. In the northwestern portion of its range, stand size corresponds to the area of exposed caprock sandstone, and small patches predominate, but large patches are also found embedded in the encompassing Northwestern Great Plains Mixedgrass Prairie (CES303.674). Another important feature is their susceptibility to wind erosion. Blowouts and sand draws are some of the unique wind-driven disturbances in the sand prairies, particularly where there are fine sands, such as in the Nebraska Sandhills (where the rare Penstemon haydenii occurs). In most of eastern Montana, substrates supporting this system have weathered in place from sandstone caprock; thus the solum is relatively thin, and the wind-sculpted features present further east, particularly in Nebraska, do not develop. Graminoid species dominate the sand prairies, although relative dominance can change due to impacts of wind disturbance. Andropogon hallii and Calamovilfa longifolia are the most common species, but other grass and forb species such as Hesperostipa comata, Schizachyrium scoparium, Carex inops ssp. heliophila, and Panicum virgatum are often present. Apparently only Calamovilfa longifolia functions as a dominant throughout the range of the system. In the western extent, Hesperostipa comata becomes more dominant, and Andropogon hallii is less abundant but still present. Communities of Artemisia cana ssp. cana are included here in central and eastern Montana. Patches of Quercus havardii can also occur within this system in the southern Great Plains. Fire and grazing constitute the other major dynamic processes that can influence this system. In the Western Great Plains in Texas, prairies on deep sands and sandhills which currently represent far southern outliers of this system, are dominated by species such as Andropogon gerardii, Andropogon hallii, Calamovilfa gigantea, Cenchrus spinifex, Hesperostipa comata, Paspalum setaceum, Schizachyrium scoparium, Sporobolus cryptandrus, and Sporobolus giganteus. Some woody species may be present, including Artemisia filifolia and Quercus havardii. Shrub species such as Artemisia filifolia, Prunus angustifolia, Rhus trilobata, and Quercus havardii may be present but constitute relatively little cover.

Classification Approach: International Terrestrial Ecological Systems Classification (ITESC)

Classification Comments: This system was edited to expand the concept to include sandy portions of the mixedgrass prairie of the Montana plains. Although in terms of potentially dominant graminoids there is virtually a complete overlap between the eastern and western extremities of the system, there is a distinct shift from west to east from midgrass species dominance, most notably Hesperostipa comata, to tallgrass species dominance, including prominently Andropogon gerardii and Andropogon hallii. Prevailing patch size also shifts from smaller to larger moving west to east. Current thinking is to include this variation within this system, but with more information and input from other Great Plains ecologists in the U.S. and Canada, this concept is subject to change, including the possibility of creating a new system. In addition, sand prairies in the Western Great Plains in Texas are currently considered far southern outliers of this system, but more information could conclude that a new system is warranted for this vegetation.

Similar Ecological Systems
Unique Identifier Name
CES303.659 Central Mixedgrass Prairie
CES303.671 Western Great Plains Sandhill Steppe
CES303.672 Western Great Plains Shortgrass Prairie
CES303.673 Western Great Plains Tallgrass Prairie

Component Associations
Association Unique ID Association Name
CEGL001120 Rhus trilobata / Pseudoroegneria spicata Shrub Grassland
CEGL001457 Rhus trilobata / Calamovilfa longifolia Shrub Grassland
CEGL001466 Andropogon hallii - Carex inops ssp. heliophila Grassland
CEGL001467 Andropogon hallii - Calamovilfa longifolia Grassland
CEGL001471 Calamovilfa longifolia - Carex inops ssp. heliophila Grassland
CEGL001473 Calamovilfa longifolia - Hesperostipa comata Grassland
CEGL001553 Artemisia cana ssp. cana / Hesperostipa comata Shrub Wet Meadow
CEGL001555 Artemisia cana ssp. cana / Calamovilfa longifolia Shrub Wet Meadow
CEGL001674 Pseudoroegneria spicata - Achnatherum hymenoides Grassland
CEGL001679 Pseudoroegneria spicata - Hesperostipa comata Grassland
CEGL001700 Hesperostipa comata - Carex filifolia Grassland
CEGL002023 Andropogon gerardii - Panicum virgatum Sandhills Grassland
CEGL002037 Hesperostipa comata - Bouteloua gracilis - Carex filifolia Grassland
CEGL002171 Quercus havardii / Sporobolus cryptandrus - Schizachyrium scoparium Shrubland
CEGL002184 Betula occidentalis - Juniperus horizontalis / Calamovilfa longifolia Shrubland
CEGL002390 Carex interior - Eleocharis elliptica - Thelypteris palustris Fen
CEGL002675 Yucca glauca / Calamovilfa longifolia Shrub Grassland
CEGL004016 Andropogon hallii - Calamovilfa gigantea Grassland
CEGL005221 Schizachyrium scoparium - Aristida basiramea - Sporobolus cryptandrus - Eragrostis trichodes Grassland


Land Cover Class: Herbaceous
Spatial Pattern: Large patch
Natural/Seminatural: No
Vegetated ( > 10% vascular cover):
Upland: Yes
Wetland: No
Isolated Wetland: No

Non-diagnostic Classifiers
Primary Classifier Secondary Classifier
Lowland Lowland
Sand Soil Texture  
G-Landscape/Low Intensity  
W-Patch/High Intensity  

At-Risk Species Reported for this Ecological System
Scientific Name
  (Common Name)
NatureServe Global Status U.S. Endangered Species Act Status
Anthus spragueii
  (Sprague's Pipit)
Charadrius montanus
  (Mountain Plover)
Penstemon haydenii
  (Blowout Penstemon)
G1G2 LE: Listed endangered
Tympanuchus pallidicinctus
  (Lesser Prairie-chicken)

Vegetation Composition (incomplete)
Species Name Rounded Global Status Growth Form Stratum Char-
Domi-nant Con-stant
Cover Class %
Asclepias stenophylla G4 Flowering forb Herb (field)      
Cryptantha fendleri G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)      
Penstemon angustifolius G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)      
Penstemon haydenii G1 Flowering forb Herb (field)      
Phlox andicola G4 Flowering forb Herb (field)      
Andropogon hallii G4 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Bouteloua gracilis G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Calamovilfa longifolia G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Hesperostipa comata G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Hesperostipa comata ssp. comata T5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Koeleria macrantha G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Schizachyrium scoparium G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    

Animal Species Reported for this Ecological System
Scientific Name
  (Common Name)
Global Status U.S. Endangered Species Act Status Charact-
Anthus spragueii
  (Sprague's Pipit)
Athene cunicularia
  (Burrowing Owl)
Centronyx bairdii
  (Baird's Sparrow)
Charadrius montanus
  (Mountain Plover)
Crotalus viridis
  (Prairie Rattlesnake)
Heterodon nasicus
  (Plains Hog-nosed Snake)
Lampropeltis triangulum
Oreoscoptes montanus
  (Sage Thrasher)
Perognathus flavescens
  (Plains Pocket Mouse)
Phrynosoma cornutum
  (Texas Horned Lizard)
Phrynosoma hernandesi
  (Short-horned Lizard)
Pituophis catenifer
Spea bombifrons
  (Plains Spadefoot)
Terrapene ornata
  (Ornate Box Turtle)
Tympanuchus pallidicinctus
  (Lesser Prairie-chicken)

Color legend for Distribution Map
Nation: United States
United States Distribution: KS, MT, ND, NE, NM, OK, SD, TX, WY
Global Range: This system is found throughout the Western Great Plains Division. The largest and most intact example of this system is found within the Sandhills region of Nebraska and South Dakota. However, it is also common (though occurring in predominantly small patches) farther west into central and eastern Montana. Its western extent in Wyoming is still to be determined, but it does occur in mapzone 29 on weathered-in-place sandy soils, where Calamovilfa longifolia is found, along with Artemisia cana. In addition, outliers have been described from the Western Great Plains in Texas (Monahans Sandhills State Park).

Biogeographic Divisions
Division Code and Name Primary Occurrence Status
303-Western Great Plains C: Confident or certain

The Nature Conservancy's Conservation Ecoregions
Code Name Occurrence Status
26 Northern Great Plains Steppe Confident or certain
27 Central Shortgrass Prairie Confident or certain
28 Southern Shortgrass Prairie Confident or certain
33 Central Mixed-Grass Prairie Confident or certain
34 Dakota Mixed-Grass Prairie Confident or certain

MRLC 2000 Mapzones
Code Name Occurrence Status
20 Missouri River Plateau Confident or certain
27 Great Plains Tablelands Predicted or probable
29 Wyoming Highlands Confident or certain
30 Northwestern Great Plains Confident or certain
31 Sandhills Confident or certain
32 Southeastern Great Plains Confident or certain
33 Western Great Plains Confident or certain
34 Southern Great Plains Confident or certain
38 Eastern Great Plains Confident or certain
39 Prairie Coteau Lands Confident or certain
40 Northern Great Plains Confident or certain

National Mapping
ESLF Code (Ecological System Lifeform): 7121
ESP Code (Environmental Site Potential): 1148
EVT Code (Existing Vegetation Type): 2148

West Landfire Legend: Yes
East Landfire Legend: Yes

Element Description Edition Date: 24May2018
Element Description Author(s): S. Menard, K. Kindscher, M.S. Reid, K.A. Schulz

Ecological data developed by NatureServe and its network of natural heritage programs (see Local Programs) and other contributors and cooperators (see Sources).

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