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Scientific Name: Great Plains Prairie Pothole
Unique Identifier: CES303.661
Classification Confidence: 1 - Strong
Image 21974
© Don Faber-Langendoen
Summary: The prairie pothole system is found primarily in the glaciated northern Great Plains of the United States and Canada, and is characterized by depressional wetlands formed by glaciers scraping the landscape during the Pleistocene era. This system is typified by several classes of wetlands distinguished by changes in topography, soils and hydrology. Many of the basins within this system are closed basins and receive irregular inputs of water from their surroundings (groundwater and precipitation), and some export water as groundwater. Hydrology of the potholes is complex. Precipitation and runoff from snowmelt are the principal water sources, with groundwater inflow secondary. Evapotranspiration is the major water loss, with seepage loss secondary. Most of the wetlands and lakes contain water that is alkaline (pH >7.4). The concentration of dissolved solids result in water that ranges from fresh to extremely saline. The flora and vegetation of this system are a function of the topography, water regime, and salinity. In addition, because of periodic droughts and wet periods, many wetlands within this system undergo vegetation cycles. This system includes elements of aquatic vegetation, emergent marshes, and wet meadows that develop into a pattern of concentric rings. This system is responsible for a significant percentage of the annual production of many economically important waterfowl in North America and houses more than 50% of North American's migratory waterfowl, with several species reliant on this system for breeding and feeding. Much of the original extent of this system has been converted to agriculture, and only approximately 40-50% of the system remains undrained.

Classification Approach: International Terrestrial Ecological Systems Classification (ITESC)

Classification Comments: More data from Canada is needed to really define this system completely.

Component Associations
Association Unique ID Association Name
CEGL001843 Bolboschoenus maritimus Marsh
CEGL002225 Schoenoplectus acutus - (Bolboschoenus fluviatilis) Freshwater Marsh
CEGL002227 Bolboschoenus maritimus - Schoenoplectus acutus - (Triglochin maritima) Marsh
CEGL002265 Carex lasiocarpa - Carex oligosperma / Sphagnum spp. Acidic Peatland


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

Non-diagnostic Classifiers
Primary Classifier Secondary Classifier
Lowland Lowland
Temperate Temperate Continental
Isolated Wetland Partially Isolated

At-Risk Species Reported for this Ecological System
Scientific Name
  (Common Name)
NatureServe Global Status U.S. Endangered Species Act Status
Platanthera leucophaea
  (Eastern Prairie White-fringed Orchid)
G2G3 LT: Listed threatened

Vegetation Composition (incomplete)
Species Name Rounded Global Status Growth Form Stratum Char-
Domi-nant Con-stant
Cover Class %
Bolboschoenus maritimus G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Carex lasiocarpa G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Carex oligosperma G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Schoenoplectus acutus G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Schoenoplectus fluviatilis G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Triglochin maritima G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    

Animal Species Reported for this Ecological System
Scientific Name
  (Common Name)
Global Status U.S. Endangered Species Act Status Charact-
Pituophis catenifer
Pseudacris maculata
  (Boreal Chorus Frog)
Thamnophis radix
  (Plains Gartersnake)

Color legend for Distribution Map
Nation: United States
United States Distribution: IA, MN, MT, ND, SD
Nation: Canada
Canadian Province Distribution: AB, MB, SK
Global Range: This system can be found throughout the northern Great Plains ranging from central Iowa northwest to southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, and extending west into north-central Montana. It encompasses approximately 870,000 square km with approximately 80% of its range in southern Canada. It is also prevalent in North Dakota, South Dakota, and northern Minnesota.

Biogeographic Divisions
Division Code and Name Primary Occurrence Status
205-Eastern Great Plains C: Confident or certain
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 Confident or certain
35 Northern Tallgrass Prairie Confident or certain
66 Aspen Parkland Confident or certain
67 Fescue-Mixed Grass Prairie Confident or certain

MRLC 2000 Mapzones
Code Name Occurrence Status
20 Missouri River Plateau Confident or certain
29 Wyoming Highlands Confident or certain
38 Eastern Great Plains Possible
39 Prairie Coteau Lands Confident or certain
40 Northern Great Plains Confident or certain
41 Northern Lake Country Confident or certain
42 Western Till Plains Predicted or probable

National Mapping
ESLF Code (Ecological System Lifeform): 9203
ESP Code (Environmental Site Potential): 1482
EVT Code (Existing Vegetation Type): 2482

West Landfire Legend: Yes
East Landfire Legend: Yes

Element Description Edition Date: 14Jan2014
Element Description Author(s): S. Menard and J. Drake

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

  • Adamus, P. R., and A. J. Hairston. 1996. Bioindicators for assessing ecological integrity of prairie wetlands. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC. 209 pp.

  • 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.

  • Johnson, W. C., B. V. Millett, T. Gilmanov, R. A. Voldseth, G. R. Guntenspergen, and D. E. Naugle. 2005. Vulnerability of northern prairie wetlands to climate change. BioScience 55(10):863-872.

  • Johnson, W. C., T. L. Sharik, R. A. Mayes, and E. P. Smith. 1987. Nature and cause of zonation discreteness around glacial prairie marshes. Canadian Journal of Botany 65:1622-1632.

  • Kantrud, H. A., G. L. Krapu, and G. A. Swanson. 1989b. Prairie basin wetlands of the Dakotas: A community profile. Biological Report 85(7.28). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 116 pp.

  • Kantrud, H. A., J. B. Millar, and A. G. Van der Valk. 1989a. Vegetation of wetlands of the prairie pothole region. Pages 132-187 in: A. Van der Valk, editor. Northern Prairie Wetlands. Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA.

  • Leibowitz, S. G., and K. C. Vining. 2003. Temporal connectivity in a prairie pothole complex. Wetlands 23:13-25.

  • Lesica, P. 1989. The vegetation and flora of glaciated prairie potholes of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Montana. Final report to The Nature Conservancy, Montana Field Office, Helena, MT. 26 pp.

  • Millett, B., W. C. Johnson, and G. Guntenspergen. 2009. Climate trends of the North American Prairie Pothole Region 1906-2000. Climate Change 93(1-2):243-267.

  • Preston, T. M., R. S. Sojda, and R. A. Gleason. 2013. Sedimentation accretion rates and sediment composition in prairie pothole wetlands under varying land use practices, Montana, United States. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 68:199-211.

  • Sloan, C. E. 1970. Biotic and hydrologic variables in prairie potholes in North Dakota. Journal of Range Management 23:260-263.

  • Stewart, R. E., and H. A. Kantrud. 1972. Vegetation of prairie potholes, North Dakota, in relation to quality of water and other environmental factors. USDI Geologic Survey Professional Paper 585-d. 36 pp.

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Data last updated: March 2019