Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Endangered species of fauna and flora are those species in imminent danger of becoming extinct unless mitigating actions are taken, particularly in saving critical habitats. The list of endangered species in the Great Plains was developed using the official list of the Division of Endangered Species of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and provincial lists for Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan prepared by the World Wildlife Fund. The list is dominated by vertebrate species, with six species of mammals, thirteen birds, one amphibian, and six fishes. The only invertebrate is an insect, the American burying beetle, and there are ten species and two varieties of vascular plants.

The most noticeable characteristic of this list is how short it is. There are only thirty-nine endangered species in the entire Great Plains. There are no reptiles on the list, and the only amphibian on the list is the Houston toad, which only marginally enters the Great Plains in central Texas. If all the species that only marginally enter the Great Plains are eliminated, the list would be significantly reduced. Among mammals, the gray bat and the Indiana bat reach the Great Plains only in extreme eastern Kansas, and the ocelot reaches the Great Plains only in south Texas. The grizzly bear and gray wolf may well be extirpated from the Great Plains, although grizzly bears may still be extant along the front of the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary and gray wolves may be found in the Parkland Belt at the northern edge of the region in the Canadian provinces.

Six species of birds on the list–burrowing owl, greater prairie-chicken, loggerhead shrike, mountain plover, piping plover, and sage thrasher–appear in the Great Plains list only because they are on one or more of the Canadian provincial lists of endangered species. The whooping crane and Eskimo curlew only migrate through the Great Plains and do not breed or reside for very long in the region. Five of the six species of fishes (the pallid sturgeon being the exception) are from restricted habitats at the southwestern edge of the Great Plains in Texas. Among the vascular plants, there are four types of cacti that enter the Great Plains in the desert grasslands along the southwestern edge of the region.

The American burying beetle has an extensive geographic range in the eastern United States, but some of the largest and best-studied populations are in Nebraska. The pallid sturgeon is found in the Missouri River and its tributaries. This leaves very few species on the list that have a broad geographic range in the Great Plains, including the black-footed ferret, swift fox, American peregrine falcon, loggerhead shrike, least tern, piping plover, western prairie fringed orchid, small white lady's slipper orchid, and Mead's milkweed.

Endangered status results from complex changes in habitats. The black-footed ferret, for example, has been taken to the brink of extinction because of the decline of its main food source, the black-tailed prairie dog, which now occupies only 2 percent of its former range. The presence of the burrowing owl on the endangered lists of three Canadian Prairie Provinces may be linked to the same cause.

Why does an extensive phytogeographic region such as the Great Plains have so few endangered species? There are at least two answers to this question. First, habitats in the Great Plains cover extensive areas and the phytogeographic regions flow almost imperceptibly from the shortgrass prairie in the west through the midgrasses to the tallgrass prairies of the east. Consequently, there are few habitats in which species can become isolated and vulnerable. Species that do become endangered tend to occupy limited geographic ranges or live in very specialized ecological niches, such as caves, hot springs, or gypsum outcrops. Second, the species that do occur in the Great Plains have broad geographic distributions and broad ecological resource limits. Species with these characteristics are generally not those that reach endangered status.

>Endangered Fauna and FLora of the Great Plains (2001)


Mammals (7)
Canis lupus gray wolf
Felis pardalis ocelot
Mustela nigripes black-footed ferret
Myotis grisescens gray bat
Myotis sodalis Indiana bat
Ursus arctos grizzly bear
Vulpes velox swift fox
Birds (13)
Charadrius melodus piping plover
Dedroica chrysoparia golden-cheeked warbler
Empidonax traillii extimus southwestern willow flycatcher
Eupoda montana mountain plover
Falco peregrinus anatum American peregrine falcon
Grus americana whooping crane
Lanius ludovicianus loggerhead shrike
Numenius borealis Eskimo curlew
Oreoscoptes montanus sage thrasher
Speotyto cunicularia burrowing owl
Sterna antillarum least tern
Tympanuchus cupido greater prairie-chicken
Vireo atricapellus black-capped vireo
Amphibian (1)
Bufo houstonensis Houston toad
Fishes (6)
Cyprinodon bovinus Leon Springs pupfish
Cyprinodon elegans Comanche Springs pupfish
Gambusia heterochir Clear Creek gambusia
Gambusia nobilis Pecos gambusia
Hybognathus amarus Rio Grande silvery minnow
Scaphirhychus albus pallid sturgeon
Insect (1)
Nicrophorus americanus American burying beetle


Vascular Plans (11)
Asclepias meadii Mead's milkweed
Callirhoe scabriuscula Texas poppy-mallow
Coryphantha minima Nellie cory cactus
Coryphantha sneedii var. leei Lee pincushion cactus
Coryphantha sneedii var. sneedii Sneed pincushion cactus
Cypripedium candidum small white lady's slipper orchid
Echinocereus fendleri var. kuenzleri Kuenzler hedgehog cactus
Erigonum gypsophilum Gypsum wild-buckwheat
Frankenia johnstonii Johnston's frankenia
Penstemon haydenii blowout penstemon
Platanthera praeclara western prairie fringed orchid

Hugh H. Genoways University of Nebraska-Lincoln Margaret R. Bolick University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Benedict, Russell A., Patricia W. Freeman, and Hugh H. Genoways. "Prairie Legacies—Mammals." In Prairie Conservation, edited by Fred B. Samson and Fritz L. Knopf. Washington DC: Island Press, 1996: 149–68.

Bragg, Thomas B., and Allen A. Steuter. "Prairie Ecology–The Mixed Prairie." In Prairie Conservation, edited by Fred B. Samson and Fritz L. Knopf. Washington DC: Island Press, 1996, 53– 66.

Knopf, Fritz L. "Prairie Legacies–Birds." In Prairie Conservation, edited by Fred B. Samson and Fritz L. Knopf. Washington DC: Island Press, 1996: 135–48.

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