British Association for American Studies


Book Review: Ecology of Dakota Landscapes: Past, Present, and Future by W. Carter Johnson and Dennis H. Knight  



Yale University Press, 2022. $45



Ecology of Dakota Landscapes: Past, Present, and Future by W. Carter Johnson and Dennis H. Knight, has beautifully blended the ecological attributes of landscapes of the Dakota region of the United States, its geological and ecological developments in recent centuries and the present environment, and prospective approaches to climate change.

An ecosystem may be large or small, from the earth as a whole to the microbial intentions associated with a decomposing root. A landscape is commonly viewed as a miles-wide mosaic of a different ecosystem, defining the changes in the ecological system of Dakota landscapes that have grown as a living place with all of the fundamental necessities for people. The explorers of the Dakota Territory include Frenchman Philipp Renault in 1719, a Canadian explorer in 1738, and two of the Vérendryne brothers in 1743, who left a lead plate inscribed with their names along the Missouri River near present-day Fort Pierre. Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark identified the development of several cultures there. The climate conditions have been referred to as extreme weather conditions, like high-intensity rainfalls, warmer winters, heavy precipitation events, evapotranspiration becoming very high, the decline in groundwater availability, and an increase in soil erosion.

The formation of the Ice Age is examined by Carter Johnson and Knight, including the development of glaciers (which are the deposition of finely ground material rich with plant nutrients) and the formation of large lakes and icebergs, rivers originating in mountains, and other water bodies. In the Dakota region, grasslands and other kinds of vegetation have been obliterated as the glaciers advanced, and there is a variation in the topographic and soil characteristics. Ecology of Dakota Landscapes has also well described the three kinds of grassland plants common in North Dakota and South Dakota, as well as the effects of climate, topography, soil, and pollinators, including over a hundred native species of grasshoppers. Pollinators are very important in various farming processes because ‘pollination is an ecosystem service powered by solar energy that would be very difficult and expensive to replace’.[i]

Ecology of Dakota Landscapes also explores the region’s bird diversity – like the mixed-grass prairies with shorter plants – which have some of the same birds, but others become common as the climate changes and the long-term effect of climate change on grasslands has diverted the relative abundance of different species. ‘Obstacles in farming like drought, World War I, and the occurrence of the Dust Bowl (which lasted from 1933 to 1939) and the trends in farm sizes, crops, and farmland cover and factors and issues of sustainability of these landscapes have been highlighted’.[ii] The lands of Dakota have been an attraction for farmers, because it has been observed as a land of diverse landscapes. Agriculture has become a major industry, and ‘mostly farmers farmed from three to five acres of floodplains and river islands’.[iii] Farm practices or innovations are the best methods of stabilizing the agricultural economy, by promoting agricultural diversity, increasing production efficiency, minimizing negative environmental effects, maintaining soil productivity, and developing techniques to mitigate biological stress effects.

The forest cover area and woodland of the Dakota region have also been discussed, and include the development of lakes, ponds, marshes, meadows, and forests. These features have created a Northwood environment that is much appreciated for hunting, fishing, camping, and water sports, in the Turtle Mountain State Forest of North Dakota and wildlife management area of Killdeer Mountains. They have highlighted the highly enriched prairie ecosystem and the characteristics of woodlands trees and shrubs in the Black Hill, on Pine Ridge, in western South Dakota, and appreciated its wildlife diversity. Plantation projects, like the plantation of 50000 shelterbelts in North Dakota since the 1930s, and the Prairie State Forestry Project started in 1935, have improved the ecological conditions and its related system. W. Carter Johnson and Dennis H. Knight have also studied the rivers in the Dakota region, which include ancient rivers that generally flow from west to east on unglaciated terrain, and youthful rivers formed more recently as continental glaciers melted and generally flowed north and south or in circuitous paths, reflecting the irregularity of glacial deposits. In the Dakotas, the effect of climate change on rivers has reduced mountain snowpack heavily, and also affected aquatic organisms and waterbodies like herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores of all size classes, and their vulnerability to climate change.

Dakota Territory was formed in 1861, with Yankton as its first capital, and its people have found food and shelter on or near floodplains. ‘The first complete inventory of floodplain vegetation along Missouri in the Dakotas was that of the General Land Office Survey’ (1872–1881).[iv] The Missouri River cultural region and its native people’s practices and farming methods have also been mentioned. This region became a riverine highway and provided a new gateway for accessing wildlife resources. The dams on the Missouri River were completed before the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 and the Endangered Species Act in 1972. Native Americans relied heavily on the river’s natural resources, and the construction of dams has been the most transformational event on the river.

Lakes and wetlands are highly interactive, and this study has included a description of the various kinds of wetlands and their biodiversity, including the formation of natural Waubay Lake in north-eastern South Dakota, and Devils Lake in north-eastern North Dakota. There are factors affecting water quality and lakes’ propensity for winterkill.  The wildlife value of the wetland complex is diminished if one or more of the wetland types is degraded or destroyed. ‘Wetlands accumulate large amounts of carbon-rich plant detritus that decomposes slowly in anaerobic sediments underwater’.[v] Along this, the Buttes, Badlands, and Sandhills of the Missouri Plateau – lying south and west of the Missouri River – constitute a small portion of the Dakotas, yet they have added diversity to the landscape, and are legacies of the region’s geologic history.

Fortunately, the Dakotas have large areas on portions of numerous public lands that can be considered natural, like the Black Hills National Forest; Wind Cave National Park; Custer State Park; Badlands National Park; Theodore Roosevelt National Park; Custer National Forest, and the six national grasslands (Fort Pierre, Sheyenne, Little Missouri, Buffalo Gap, Grand River, and Cedar River). Therefore, Ecology of Dakota Landscape has well-defined the changes in the Dakota region’s climate change and ecosystem, thus identifying the reasons and options for protecting it.




[i] Matthias A. Becher, Juliet L Osborne, Pernille Thorbek, Peter Kennedy, & Grimm Volker, “REVIEW: Towards A Systems Approach for Understanding Honeybee Decline: A Stocktaking and Synthesis of Existing Models,” The Journal of Applied Ecology 50, (2013): 868-880, 877

[ii] W. Carter Johnson and Dennis H. Knight, Ecology of Dakota Landscapes: Past, Present, and Future (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 77

[iii] Barbara Handy-Marchello and Fern. E. Swenson, Traces: Early People of North Dakota (Bismarck: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2018), 8

[iv] W. Carter Johnson, “Dams and Riparian Forests: Case Study from the Upper Missouri River,” Rivers 3 (1992): 229–242, 231

[v] Cody J. Zilverberg, Kyle Heimerl, Thomas E. Schumacher, Douglas D. Malo, Joseph A. Schumacher, W. Carter Johnson, “Landscape Dependent Changes in Soil Properties due to Long-Term Cultivation and Subsequent Conversion to Native Grass Agriculture,” Catena 160 (January 2018): 282–297, 284

About the Author

Dr. Nidhi Kaushal is a researcher exploring the field of Leadership through the study of Creative writings and ancient Indian scriptures. She has identified the indigenous studies of literature and folklore related to Management.