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Scientific Name: Western Great Plains Badlands
Unique Identifier: CES303.663
Classification Confidence: 1 - Strong

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Summary: This ecological system is found within the northern Great Plains region of the United States and Canada with some of the better known and extensive examples in North and South Dakota. In contrast to Western Great Plains Cliff and Outcrop (CES303.665), this system is typified by extremely dry and easily eroded, consolidated clay soils with bands of sandstone or isolated consolidates and little to no cover of vegetation (usually less than 10% but can be as high as 20%). Vegetated patches within the badlands system may have cover higher than 20%. In north-central Montana, badlands often are a mosaic of bare substrate with small patches of grasses and/or shrubs that may exceed 10% cover. In those areas with vegetation, species can include scattered individuals of many dryland shrubs or herbaceous taxa, including Grindelia squarrosa, Gutierrezia sarothrae (especially with overuse and grazing), Sarcobatus vermiculatus, Atriplex gardneri, Artemisia pedatifida, Eriogonum spp., Muhlenbergia cuspidata, Pseudoroegneria spicata, and Arenaria hookeri. Patches of Artemisia spp. can also occur. 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.

Classification Approach: International Terrestrial Ecological Systems Classification (ITESC)

Classification Comments: It has been proposed to change the name of this system to include "shale barrens." As with all predominantly "barren" systems, there will be patches of vegetated areas within the overall system. Small areas of "badlands" or "shale barrens" can also occur without major erosional processes actively taking place. An example location is Bitter Creek Area of Environmental Concern (BLM designation), which is much like a badland but not so eroded. The vegetation is sparse with Juniperus horizontalis and much bare ground; there is some grass cover as well. The driving process is erosion. Exactly where this transitions to Inter-Mountain Basins Shale Badland (CES304.789) in central Wyoming needs to be clarified.

Similar Ecological Systems
Unique Identifier Name
CES303.665 Western Great Plains Cliff and Outcrop
CES304.783 Inter-Mountain Basins Mat Saltbush Shrubland

Component Associations
Association Unique ID Association Name
CEGL001128 Shepherdia argentea Wet Shrubland
CEGL001360 Sarcobatus vermiculatus / Atriplex gardneri Wet Shrubland
CEGL001367 Sarcobatus vermiculatus / Pseudoroegneria spicata Shrubland
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
CEGL001484 Panicum virgatum - (Pascopyrum smithii) Wet Meadow
CEGL001525 Artemisia pedatifida - Atriplex gardneri Shrubland
CEGL001951 Arenaria hookeri Barrens Vegetation
CEGL002050 Eroding Great Plains Badlands Sparse Vegetation
CEGL002195 Artemisia longifolia Badlands Sparse Vegetation
CEGL005270 Eriogonum pauciflorum - Gutierrezia sarothrae Badlands Sparse Vegetation


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

Diagnostic Classifiers
Primary Classifier Secondary Classifier

Non-diagnostic Classifiers
Primary Classifier Secondary Classifier
Temperate Temperate Continental
Flood Scouring  
W-Patch/High Intensity  

Vegetation Composition (incomplete)
Species Name Rounded Global Status Growth Form Stratum Char-
Domi-nant Con-stant
Cover Class %
Sarcobatus vermiculatus G5 Broad-leaved deciduous shrub Shrub/sapling (tall & short)    
Artemisia tridentata G5 Broad-leaved evergreen shrub Shrub/sapling (tall & short)    
Artemisia longifolia G5 Dwarf-shrub Short shrub/sapling    
Atriplex gardneri G5 Broad-leaved deciduous shrub Short shrub/sapling    
Gutierrezia sarothrae G5 Broad-leaved deciduous shrub Short shrub/sapling    
Eremogone hookeri G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)    
Grindelia squarrosa G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)    

Color legend for Distribution Map
Nation: United States
United States Distribution: MT, ND, NE, SD, WY
Nation: Canada
Canadian Province Distribution: MBpotentially occurs
Global Range: This system ranges throughout the northern Great Plains region of the United States and Canada. Some of the best and well-known examples occur in North and South Dakota. Its western-most occurrence in Wyoming needs to be clarified, but it does occur in the eastern portion of that state.

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
34 Dakota Mixed-Grass Prairie Predicted or probable
66 Aspen Parkland Possible
67 Fescue-Mixed Grass Prairie Predicted or probable

MRLC 2000 Mapzones
Code Name Occurrence Status
20 Missouri River Plateau Confident or certain
21 Middle Rocky Mountains Possible
22 Wyoming Basin Possible
29 Wyoming Highlands Confident or certain
30 Northwestern Great Plains Confident or certain
31 Sandhills Confident or certain
33 Western Great Plains Possible
40 Northern Great Plains Predicted or probable

National Mapping
ESLF Code (Ecological System Lifeform): 3114

West Landfire Legend: No
East Landfire Legend: No

Element Description Edition Date: 29Jan2007
Element Description Author(s): S. Menard, K. Kindscher, G. Kittel and M.S. Reid

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

  • Comer, P., D. Faber-Langendoen, R. Evans, S. Gawler, C. Josse, G. Kittel, S. Menard, C. Nordman, M. Pyne, M. Reid, M. Russo, K. Schulz, K. Snow, J. Teague, and R. White. 2003-present. Ecological systems of the United States: A working classification of U.S. terrestrial systems. NatureServe, Arlington, VA.

  • Knight, D. H., G. P. Jones, Y. Akashi, and R. W. Myers. 1987. Vegetation ecology in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Unpublished report prepared for the USDI National Park Service and University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research.

  • Rice, P. M., E. W. Schweiger, W. Gustafson, C. Lea, D. Manier, D. Shorrock, B. Frakes, and L. O'Gan. 2012b. Vegetation classification and mapping project report: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Natural Resource Report NPS/ROMN/NRR--2012/590. National Park Service, Fort Collins, CO. 147 pp.

  • Rolfsmeier, S. B., and G. Steinauer. 2010. Terrestrial ecological systems and natural communities of Nebraska (Version IV - March 9, 2010). Nebraska Natural Heritage Program, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Lincoln, NE. 228 pp.

  • 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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Version 7.1 (2 February 2009)
Data last updated: March 2019