Island Habitats: A Stronghold of Carnivore Biodiversity in Agriculturally Modified Environments

By: Kirk Johnson


With the advent of European settlement over 100 years ago, the northern Great Plains became the site of extremely rapid landscape change. Mixed-grass prairies in what is now North Dakota quickly fell to the plow for cropland, while short-grass prairies and riparian habitats in the state's drier west were utilized for livestock production. This combined with the disappearance of decline of prey species such as the bison (Bison bison), caused a retreat of formerly endemic mammalian carnivores like the gray wolf (Canis lupus), and the black bear (Ursus americanus), to isolated "island-like" habitats such as the Pembina Escarpment and the Turtle Mountains in the northern part of the state, while remnant transient populations of the puma (Puma concolor) persisted in those ecoregions and in the "Badlands" of southwestern North Dakota. Over the last twenty years, sightings, sign and mortalities of these three predators has increased, suggesting the possibility of juvenile dispersal from established breeding populations of pumas, wolves, and black bears in Manitoba, Minnesota, and South Dakota. Rural landowners in North Dakota and elsewhere on the Great Plains may increasingly face the dilemma of balancing economic interests with federal and state laws designed to protect and subsequently reestablish these native carnivores in suitable habitat islands and peninsulas. How North Dakotans resolve these land use issues has implications for other Great Plains states where carnivore dispersion is also taking place.

Kirk Johnson is a graduate student in geography at South Dakota State University studing land use issues in Colorado.

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