Intermittent Prairie Streams in the Northern Great Plains: A Case of an Undervalued Ecosystem

Christian Lenhart, Kristen Blann, Krista Ehlert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Small (<15 m wide), intermittent prairie streams in western South Dakota, a semiarid part of the northern United States, are undervalued ecosystems because they do not exemplify the values of classic, flowing streams. However, they are valuable as wildlife corridors, aquatic habitat for drought-adapted species, and support of local grazing economies. We surveyed 90 streams in 2018-2019, collecting data on geomorphic, water chemistry, and biological properties, focusing on vegetation and grazing impacts.We developed an approach for categorizing streams by landscape position and flow regime to facilitate appropriate land management and stream restoration actions. The result was a published landowner guide to provide information on low-tech riparian management and restoration options of the four stream types we categorized. The headwaters streams and woody draws with drainage areas <26 km2 are the most abundant types and exemplify the issues described above. Large rivers, despite drainage areas exceeding 260 km2 can go dry. Management issues include invasive plant species, lack of woody riparian establishment, poor water quality, overgrazing, channel incision, and water stress from climate change. The most cost-effective management practices involve rotational grazing and practices that reduce cattle impacts. More recently, beaver dam analogs have been installed and beaver reintroduction is being considered along with reestablishment of native bison herds in place of cattle. Intermittent prairie streams present an excellent case study of an undervalued ecosystem, illustrating the challenges and opportunities of such systems. Engagement of grazing landowners can improve stewardship of these systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2006981
JournalCase Studies in the Environment
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 25 2023

Bibliographical note

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© 2023 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.


  • ephemeral
  • riparian conservation
  • riparian grazing
  • riparian restoration
  • stream classification


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