Environmental Management

, Volume 49, Issue 5, pp 990–1008 | Cite as

Dynamics of Plains Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) Forests and Historical Landscape Change along Unchannelized Segments of the Missouri River, USA

  • Mark D. Dixon
  • W. Carter Johnson
  • Michael L. Scott
  • Daniel E. Bowen
  • Lisa A. Rabbe


Construction of six large dams and reservoirs on the Missouri River over the last 50–75 years has resulted in major landscape changes and alterations in flow patterns, with implications for riparian forests dominated by plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides). We quantified changes in land cover from 1892–1950s and the 1950s–2006 and the current extent and age structure of cottonwood forests on seven segments (two reservoir and five remnant floodplain) comprising 1127 km (53 %) of the unchannelized upper two-thirds of the Missouri River. Riparian forest area declined by 49 %; grassland 61 %; shrubland 52 %; and sandbar habitat 96 %; while agricultural cropland increased six-fold and river/reservoir surface area doubled from 1892 to 2006. Net rates of erosion and accretion declined between the 1892–1950s and 1950s–2006 periods. Accretion exceeded erosion on remnant floodplain segments, resulting in declines in active channel width, particularly in 1950s–2006. Across all study segments in 2006, most cottonwood stands (67 %) were >50 years old, 22 % were 25–50 years old, and only 10 % were <25 years old. Among stands <50 years old, the higher proportion of 25–50 year old stands represents recruitment that accompanied initial post-dam channel narrowing; while declines in sandbar and shrubland area and the low proportion of stands <25 years old suggest declines in geomorphic dynamism and limited recruitment under recent river management. Future conservation and restoration efforts should focus both on limiting further loss of remnant cottonwood stands and developing approaches to restore river dynamics and cottonwood recruitment processes.


Riparian vegetation Flow regulation Dams Channel change Great Plains 



Funding was provided via contract # W912DQ-07-C-0011 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District, with additional funding from the University of South Dakota. Caleb Caton, Rebekah Jessen, Adam Benson, Lisa Yager and other students at the University of South Dakota, and Elizabeth Reynolds, Dale Kohlmetz, Christopher Peltz, Michael Dodrill, Lindsey Washkoviak, Brittany Hummel, Keir Morse, and Tara Kline from the U.S. Geological Survey assisted with field sampling and mapping. Wes Christensen, Jesse Wolff, Heather Campbell and Drew Price from USD and Tammy Fancher and Hanna Moyer from USGS conducted much of the photo-interpretation and GIS work. Jon Kragt, USACE, Omaha District, provided georeferenced, digital copies of the 1892 Missouri River Commission maps. Tim Cowman, Missouri River Institute at USD, provided historical imagery and access to computer server space. Danielle Quist provided data on historical flows on imagery dates. Malia Volke of SDSU drafted our study area map. We thank representatives from numerous agencies and institutions, including the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, Northern Prairies Land Trust, Yankton Sioux and Lower Brule Sioux Tribes, and South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks, for providing access to field sites. Finally, we thank the numerous private landowners who graciously provided access to their land.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark D. Dixon
    • 1
  • W. Carter Johnson
    • 2
  • Michael L. Scott
    • 3
  • Daniel E. Bowen
    • 4
  • Lisa A. Rabbe
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of South DakotaVermillionUSA
  2. 2.Department of Natural Resource ManagementSouth Dakota State UniversityBrookingsUSA
  3. 3.U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Science CenterFort CollinsUSA
  4. 4.Department of Biology Benedictine CollegeAtchisonUSA
  5. 5.U.S. Army Corps of EngineersKansas CityUSA

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