Climate change, prairie potholes, and bird and amphibian habitat


Project Background and Rationale
Important habitat for birds and amphibians at the Fort Belknap Reservation in the Prairie Pothole Region of the North American Plains may be at risk due to global climate changes (Poiani et al., 1993; Conly et al., 2001).  It is estimated that greater than 50% of migrating ducks breed and nest in wetlands of North American plains (Batt, 1989).  Many of these wetlands are depressional prairie potholes that were formed as glaciers receded across North America during the last ice age.  

Depressional prairie potholes regulate the flow of water and provide important habitat on the prairie landscape.  Snow melt and spring rainfall runoff are captured by depressional prairie potholes and are important water resources in the semi-arid regions of the North American plains.  Water levels and the duration of wet-dry cycles vary greatly among individual prairie potholes resulting in seasonal and permanent wetlands.  Smaller prairie potholes at Fort Belknap Indian Community relying upon surface water tend to dry up by mid-July to Mid-August (D.Longknife, pers comm.); whereas, studies suggest that larger, deeper prairie potholes with some connection to the groundwater system may be filled permanently (Winter, T. C. 1989).   Water levels are sensitive to changes in regional weather patterns that may result from global climate changes (Poiani et al., 1993; Conly et al., 2001; Van der Valk, 2005). 

Water levels and the duration of wet-dry cycles in individual prairie potholes determine habitat suitable for breeding of birds and amphibians through impacts on wetland vegetation type, ratios of emergent vegetation to open water,  water depths and water temperatures (Werner et al,  2004; Gleason, 2009) .   Because of the sheer numbers, shallow depth and the timing of wet periods, seasonal prairie potholes play a critical role during breeding seasons of aquatic insects, amphibians, birds and other species of an aquatic food web on the prairie landscape (Conly et al., 2001).  Raptors, mammalian herbivores and predators also rely upon prairie potholes for water, forage and protective cover while raising young (Gleason, 2009).

Project Goals and Design
Our goal is to conduct detailed hydrologic studies of depressional prairie potholes, survey bird species and count amphibian egg mass numbers associated with prairie potholes on the Fort Belknap Indian Community.  Using GPS mapping tools, we will measure perimeters and water depths along perpendicular transects within individual prairie potholes 3-4 times over the summer.  We will count numbers of amphibian egg masses and record depths of water where egg masses are located for each prairie pothole.  Using these data and climate data from our college weather station, students and faculty will develop simple, calculus-based models for prairie potholes morphologies and hydrologic budgets.  Students will test various scenarios of changing precipitation and evapotranspiration rates associated with climate change predictions.  We will evaluate how changing water depths may reduce or increase the amount of suitable habitat for deposition of amphibian egg masses.  Students will also conduct a literature review to discover whether waterfowl and songbird nesting success is related to prairie pothole depths and perimeter-to-volume ratios.  We will evaluate whether hydrologic variables correlate with bird species numbers.

Student and Community Benefits
Students will benefit from summer employment and learning enrichment through applications of math, calculus and computer programming to address this important environmental issue.  They will prepare poster presentations for EPSCoR conference at Montana State University in Bozeman and Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in San Antonio, TX in October, 2013.  These activities also support priorities of the Fort Belknap Environmental and Fish and Game Departments to protect and provide habitat for wildlife.  We have communicated with our community partners during preparation of this proposal and have their full support.
Facilities and Equipment

Resources available at ANC that will directly support project implementation include: a boat with a small motor, portable Hydrolab, GPS gear, field gear and sampling supplies, survey tape measures, computers and a weather station.  Vehicles are available for field work transportation.  The attached budget includes funds for salary, fringe benefits, transportation costs, supplies for measuring water depths, boots, hip waders, notebooks, office supplies, poster printing, etc.

IoE Team: 


MSU IoE Office

Montana State University
605 Leon Johnson Hall
Bozeman, MT 59717
(406) 994-2374
MSU Director: Bruce Maxwell

UM IoE Office

The Universityi of Montana

The University of Montana
Davidson Honors College
Missoula, MT 59812
(406) 243-6058
UM Director: Maury Valett


Montana University System

Montana University System

Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education
2500 Broadway Street
Helena, MT 59620