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New ARS Publication Charts 80 Years of Vegetation Changes in the Northern Plains

By Kim Kaplan
November 14, 2001

Sometimes history is in the plants and the land.

Changes in the vegetation and landscape of the Northern Great Plains during the past 80 years are chronicled in a new publication by the Agricultural Research Service. In addition to the print version containing high-resolution photographs, a version with low-resolution images is on the web at:


Comparing three sets of photographs taken at the same locations about 40 years apart, author and ARS rangeland scientist Keith D. Klement has documented shifts in the types and abundance of plants at locations in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Klement is with ARS’s Fort Keogh Livestock & Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Montana.

The first two photograph sets were taken by the University of Arizona between 1908 and 1937 and from 1958 to 1960. ARS commissioned the third set, taken in 1998.

Klement then visited the sites to gather what stories he could of what had been happening to the land during the 80 years--whether the land had been fenced and grazed by livestock, whether rivers and creeks shifted their course, and any other land alterations that might have occurred.

The most surprising change Klement found was that in the past few decades there has been an extensive increase in areas densely covered by ponderosa pines on the mountains and by sagebrush in the valleys and foothills.

Not surprisingly, human management of the land has also altered the density and mix of plants. Fences have created microhabitats, the interval between wildfires has been extended to near elimination in many areas, and other practices are all changing the face of the rangelands.

Detecting shifts in plant species on rangelands can be difficult because changes often occur so slowly they are hard for people to see. Klement hopes this publication will provide researchers, naturalists, land managers, extension agents, and policy makers with a new awareness and appreciation of the subtle but real changes in the Northern Great Plains over the last 80 years.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.