Biological diversity and ecological integrity in native prairies of the northern Great Plains are substantially modified from pre-Euro-American settlement. About 90,000 ha of native mixed-grass and tallgrass prairie are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in North Dakota, South Dakota, and northeastern Montana. We used belt transects to classify floristic composition of all Service-owned prairies in the Dakotas and northeastern Montana. Prairies were significantly degraded, mainly by invasion of introduced grass and forb species and by native shrubs. In general, floristic integrity of Service-managed prairies was most compromised by smooth brome (Bromus inermis) and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). The degradation was, in part, an unintended outcome of long-term management by the Service. The degree of degradation varied spatially across the broad geographic area defined by our study and was invader-specific, corresponding to geographic patterns in precipitation and temperature. Within the study area, floristic quality was relatively high on prairies toward the north and west, where plant growth sites generally were cooler and drier, based on long-term averages. In contrast, growth sites to the south and east generally were warmer, moister, and characterized by lower floristic quality, primarily because they were substantially invaded by smooth brome. Kentucky bluegrass was the most widespread invader of Service-owned prairies, with less frequent occurrence only in prairies dominated by smooth brome, especially in South Dakota or by native grass–forbs, especially in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana. Improved knowledge of geographic and climate-related patterns of plant invasion enhances decision making for protecting northern mixed-grass and tallgrass prairies by focusing restoration efforts where probability of success is greater.
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Vol. 40 • No. 1