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The Great Plains including the Black Hills

Black-backed woodpecker
Black-backed woodpecker

The Great Plains are the broad expanse of prairie, steppe, and grassland that lie west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains and Canada (map). This area covers parts of the U.S. states of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, and northern Mexico. In general, the Great Plains have a wide variety of weather throughout the year and from north to south. To the north, winter days in North Dakota average 25F, while it is possible to have a New Mexico winter day over 75F. Humans have converted much of the plains grasslands for agricultural purposes or pastures. Most of the 20 National Grasslands comprising 3.8 million acres administered by the U.S. Forest Service are in the Great Plains.

The Northern Great Plains are characterized by gently rolling hills, wooded draws with little elevational change, and prairie potholes. Vegetation is dominated by cool- and warm-season grasses, sedges, and forbs, with occasional shrubs. Grasslands have a history of grazing by bison, elk, deer, antelope, and prairie dogs. Use of the grasslands includes tilled croplands, hay pastures, and grazing lands.

The Black Hills are a ponderosa pine dominated forest considered to be a northern extension of the Rocky Mountains. Sub-dominant trees include white spruce, aspen, paper birch, and burr oak. Understory species represent grasses and forbs found on a mixed-grass prairie, and shrubs such a kinnikinnik, Oregon grape holly, and wild roses.

The Southern Great Plains are characterized by periodic drought, combinations of grassland and shrubland, and wetlands known as playa lakes. Dryland farming is becoming more common, and ranching, wind farms, and oil production are typical land uses. The region roughly centered on the Oklahoma Panhandle, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, the Texas Panhandle, and extreme northeastern New Mexico was known as the Dust Bowl the late 1920s and early 1930s. The effect of the drought combined with land overuse and economic downturns during the Great Depression that drove many farmers off their land.