2017 Sustainable RIVER REU Participants

Welcome to the sustainable RIVER blog! We’re the team of the 2017 Sustainable RIVER REU participants through the University of South Dakota!

The Missouri River is a dynamic environment with complicated issues affecting different communities throughout the upper Missouri River basin. The Upper Missouri Basin extends from the river’s source in Montana to Sioux City, Iowa. In this blog, we aim to discuss many of the most pressing challenges facing the Missouri River, as investigated by our research projects.

Our research includes social science, geophysical, and biological/ecological based projects, and guest bloggers may come from the Missouri River Institute, the University of South Dakota, the National Parks Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

If you are interested in writing for this blog or have questions, feel free to contact us at

Effects of Fishes on Aquatic Insects

posted Nov 20, 2017, 7:43 AM by Jillian Farkas   [ updated Nov 21, 2017, 12:35 PM ]

By: Tyler Seidel 
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Aquatic insects are an important source of energy for freshwater fishes and an important source of energy in linked aquatic-terrestrial food webs. However, the consumption of aquatic insects by fishes may reduce the energy available to aquatic and terrestrial food webs. Our research predicted that fishes would alter local food webs and affect ecosystem productivity. Emergence traps and fish exclusion cages were used to collect emerged aquatic insects from treatments with and without fish to determine the reduction of insect emergence by fishes to terrestrial ecosystems. Furthermore, fish and benthic communities were sampled and recorded, fish diets were sampled, and terrestrial insectivorous spider abundances were recorded. Research took place above and below an abandoned beaver dammed stream on the Missouri National Recreation River at Bow Creek Recreation Area in Cedar County, Nebraska, which contains both native fish and introduced fish. 

Data suggests that the fish sampled at Bow Creek Recreation Area were primarily water column feeding fish and that the stage of aquatic insects consumed varied across species. Moreover, fish exclusion cages yielded higher emergent insect biomass above the former beaver dam, and that the terrestrial spider densities were higher above cages without fish than with fish. Results from our research will help to determine the direct and indirect effects of fishes on ecosystems, allow for the testing of new theory in ecology about the role of size-structured prey, introduce the potential role of fish species loss or introduction in linked aquatic-terrestrial food webs, and help to guide the conservation and management of the Missouri River.

Our results demonstrate that freshwater fishes can reduce aquatic insect emergence by 80%. The reduction of aquatic insect emergence biomass has direct effects on adjacent terrestrial ecosystems. Since aquatic insects support a variety of terrestrial consumers, one notable effect is the reduced abundance of aquatic prey consumers such as insectivorous terrestrial spiders. This trend may be translatable to higher order terrestrial consumers such as amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals. Therefore, it is important to understand how fish communities are influencing the quantity of a resource that is utilized across ecosystems. For example, the consumption of aquatic insects by fish varied according to species. The variation in consumption patterns may promote disproportionate reductions in aquatic insect biomass in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. 

Competitive pressures among freshwater fishes influences the respective predatory behaviors of fishes in order to reduce competition. The partition of foraging habitat among fishes prompts species-specific consumption rates that are dependent on the fish community present. Therefore, the abundance of aquatic insects consumed, including the life history stage of the aquatic insect, is dependent on which fish species are present. Our results may be of particular importance to consider for recreational or sports fishing. Conservation and management decisions should consider what fish species are present, what they are eating, and how supporting artificial populations of fish species influences the other covariates. In addition, the species-specific consumption rates of aquatic insects may influence riparian zone organisms through differential habitat use patterns. This trend is supported by the colonization and persistence rates of insectivorous terrestrial spiders. However, it is unclear how fish community composition indirectly influences other terrestrial species that are dependent on aquatic insects.

For more information, check out the following links:

Supplemental Readings

Baxter, C. V., K. D. Fausch, and W. Carl Saunders. (2005). Freshwater Biology, 201-220.

Polis, G.A., Anderson, W.B. & Holt, R.D. (1997). Annual Review in Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 289-316.

Nakano, S., and M. Murakami. (2001). PNAS, 166-170.

Wesner, J. S. (2016) Oecologica, 1205-1211.

Tyler checking an emergence trap at Bow Creek Recreation Area

An image reflecting the effect of fish on emerging insects. Mesocosoms with fish reduced aquatic insect emergence

Time of Plant Establishment Affects Prairie Composition

posted Nov 5, 2017, 3:20 PM by Jillian Farkas   [ updated Nov 5, 2017, 6:53 PM ]

By: Aleisa LaBelle
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Sustainability, a cross-disciplinary field, focuses on maintaining the earth’s ecosystems for future generations while improving human well-being. For years, humans have been using the land in a way that satisfies economic stakeholders, and aren’t always focused on allowing ecosystems to flourish into the future.  In the United States, native prairies are decreasing, which is primarily due to past and current conversion to agricultural land. Several scientific studies have been performed or are in progress to evaluate potential benefits of managed prairie systems, including haying grasses for animal feed or biofuels, or to increase pollinator levels near agricultural fields (Jarchow & Liebman 2011). The results of these studies aim to encourage land managers to restore and maintain diverse prairie systems. By incorporating sustainability practices into prairie research and agricultural practices, we can hope to preserve today’s beauty and biodiversity for future generations.

I helped conduct research on prairie systems in the 2017 Sustainable RIVER REU program. For my research, I assisted with the Comparing Managed Prairie Systems (CoMPS) experiment near Vermillion, SD. I used data from the treatments that contained different prairie functional groups, including warm-season grasses, cool-season grasses, early-flowering forbs, and late-flowering forbs, grown alone and grown in pairs (for a total of 10 treatments). The research hoped to quantify whether each functional group overyielded or underyielded when grown with the other functional groups.  A functional group overyielded when the amount of aboveground biomass that the group produced when paired with another functional group was higher than the yield it produced when grown alone (Hector & Loreau 2001). Conversely, a functional group underyielded when the amount of aboveground biomass that the group produced when paired with another functional group was lower than the yield it produced when grown alone (Hector & Loreau 2001).  Measuring overyielding and underyielding helps to evaluate the relationship between increasing diversity and productivity.  

To gather data for my research project, I conducted fieldwork, which included harvesting plants and identifying plant species. To further inform my research question, I also incorporated data previously collected in July of 2015 and 2016 by a graduate student. My main finding was the cool-season grasses tended to dominate all other functional groups (i.e. overyield), but the abundance of the warm-season grasses was increasing over time (Figure 1).  The forbs were not well established in the experiment yet. Because the cool-season grasses started growing earlier (in the experiment and in the year), they were able to get established and exclude other functional groups.  

Overall, this project helped enhance my research skills and provided me the opportunity to learn more about the complexities of prairie ecology. 
Figure 1. When C3 plants were paired with C4 plants, early-flowering forbs, and late-flowering forbs, the C3 plants overyielded. However, when late-flowering forbs were paired with the other groups, they underyielded. 

Click on the following links to learn more about prairie ecosystems and the research that is ongoing! 

Aleisa is from Sioux City, IA and is currently studying general sciences at the Nebraska Indian Community College. She was part of the 11-week 2017 Sustainable RIVER REU, and researched prairie conservation with a sustainability focus with her research mentor Dr. Meghann Jarchow.

Literature Cited

Jarchow, M. E., & M. Liebman. 2011. Incorporating prairies into multifunctional landscapes. Extension and Outreach Publications. 48 <>.

Loreau, M., & A. Hector. 2001. Partitioning selection and complementarity in biodiversity experiments. Nature, 412(6842): 72-76. 

Example vegetation plot with necessary materials for harvesting and identification 

Aleisa in action harvesting grasses and forbs from the vegetation from the test plot

Pictures by Eva Soluk Allison Bowers and Shelly Kosola

Importance of Maintaining the Diverse Tallgrass Prairie

posted Oct 17, 2017, 10:23 AM by Jillian Farkas   [ updated Nov 15, 2017, 9:01 PM ]

By Shelley Kosola

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Prairie lands once inhabited approximately 170 million acres across North America (Figure 1; NPS 2015).  Yet today, only 1% of the original tallgrass prairie remains (Sampson and Knopf 1994).  The loss in tallgrass prairie was caused primarily by conversion of the land for agriculture, especially row-crop agriculture.  There are currently large losses of grasslands, including prairie, in the Western Corn Belt due to continued expansion by row-crop agriculture (Wright and Wimberly 2013).  Continued destruction and increased isolation of tallgrass prairies threatens this important, and once dominant, ecosystem.

Prairie systems are remarkably complex and diverse.  On average, 80% of the prairie is composed of grasses (40-60 species) and the other 20% consists of forbs (~300 species), lichen, and liverworts (~100 species) (NPS 2015). Each of those species plays an intricate role in sustaining a thriving environmental community or niche. Diversity is a key element in creating balance within those ecosystems.  An analysis by Dr. Forest Isbell and colleagues (2011) of grassland systems found:

Different species promoted ecosystem functioning during different years, at different places, for different functions, and under different environmental change scenarios.  Furthermore, the species needed to provide one function during multiple years were not the same as those needed to provide multiple functions within one year… although species may appear functionally redundant when one function is considered under one set of environmental conditions, many species are needed to maintain multiple functions at multiple times and places in a changing world.

Literature Cited

Isbell F., Calcagno V., Hector A., Connolly J., Harpole W.S., Reich P.B., et al. (2011) High plant diversity is needed to maintain ecosystem services. Nature 477: 199-203.

NPS (2015) A complex prairie ecosystem. National Park Service. Retrieved from

Sampson F. and F. Knopf (1994) Prairie conservation in North America. BioScience 44(6): 418-421.

Wright C.K. and M.C. Wimberly (2013) Recent land use change in the Western Corn Belt threatens grasslands and wetlands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 110(10): 4134-4139.

Figure created by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

Photo by Meghann Jarchow

Mapping the Missouri

posted Sep 27, 2017, 8:02 PM by Jillian Farkas   [ updated Oct 17, 2017, 10:25 AM ]

By: Becca Krasky

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Today’s Missouri River looks incredibly different from the Missouri River explored by Lewis and Clark from 1804 to 1806 on their historic “Voyage of Discovery”. They traversed a wild river, called the “Big Muddy”, so named because of its massive sediment load, winding through a floodplain up to twenty miles wide (Schneiders, 1999). The banks and floodplain were forested with a successional variety of trees, including towering cottonwoods. Bison and elk roamed the prairie, and the river was inundated with native fish. 

Today, much of the cottonwood forest is gone because of conversion to agriculture. The river is controlled by six mainstem dams north of Sioux City, Iowa, and channelized from Sioux City to its confluence with the Mississippi in Missouri. It flows in a straight, deep channel, with much of its sediment trapped by the dams. Native fish are maladapted to the fast flowing and dammed river, and struggle to compete with invasive species, such as silver carp. Two endangered shorebirds, the Piping Plover and Least Tern, and one native fish, the Pallid Sturgeon, are several species affected by the damming of the river, and are protected under the Endangered Species Act (Lawson, 2009). 

So, why has the river changed so much? The present-day Missouri River reflects South Dakota’s past of colonialism, and the state’s entrenched reliance on the global economy for trade of the state’s natural and human resources (Dhillon, 2017). This can be seen in the loss of almost all the state’s native prairie, its shrinking wetlands, and the dammed Missouri River. South Dakota’s prairie was willingly sacrificed to grow commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. The state’s original Indigenous inhabitants, the Arikara/Sahnish, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Sioux, were robbed of much of their land and were forced to move to reservations. Through the Pick-Sloan Plan, the Missouri River was dammed in the 1950s and 1960s to protect downstream cities from flooding (Lambrecht, 2005); however, this Plan allowed the flooding of entire reservation communities, inundating their most fertile land, sacred sites along the river, and ancestral homes (Lawson, 2009). South Dakota’s white government and white settlers have always had priority in dictating the uses of the state’s landscapes.  

So, what’s the future of the Missouri River in South Dakota? Will it always be restrained by dams, dikes, and bank stabilizers? Or will it be allowed to be wild, meandering throughout the floodplain, and maintaining natural flooding regimes? I wonder whether valuation and quantification of essential ecosystem services, tangible benefits to people provided by the environment, could help residents of the Upper Missouri basin recognize how valuable a restored Missouri River might be. River management is a complicated issue, with numerous stakeholders, and as history has shown, decisions about land use have profound implications for the future. Our actions today will dictate how future South Dakotans interact with the Missouri, and as caretakers of this land, it is our responsibility to carefully evaluate options for river management. 

Would you like to learn more about these issues? 
My top book recommendations from this summer are, in no particular order: 
  • Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux by Michael Lawson
  • Big Muddy Blues: True Tales and Twisted Politics Along Lewis and Clark’s Missouri River by Bill Lambrecht
  • Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention by Jaskiran Dhillon

Becca is a junior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and is majoring in Environmental Studies and Geography. She spent this summer researching how South Dakota’s landscape has changed over the past three hundred years, and created maps to reflect these changes. Her research included reading over ten books about the state’s rural geography and history. 

Literature Cited

Dhillon, J. (2017). Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lambrecht, B. (2005). Big Muddy Blues: True Tales and Twisted Politics Along Lewis and Clark’s Missouri River. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Lawson, M. L. (2009). Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux. Pierre, SD: South Dakota State Historical Society Press.

Schneiders, R. K. (1999). Unruly River. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Searching for the False Map Turtle

posted Sep 11, 2017, 11:46 AM by Jillian Farkas   [ updated Nov 7, 2017, 2:16 PM ]

By: Shay Austin
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As part of my Sustainable RIVER experience with the Kerby Lab, I helped survey along the 800 miles of shoreline of Lake Oahe, a large reservoir on the Missouri River, to search for false map turtles (Graptemys pseudogeographica). Before coming to Vermillion, South Dakota, I had never heard of the false map turtle! I soon realized the importance of this research because no one knew if this state-threatened species still existed in Lake Oahe.  I figured I would learn a lot about these charming creatures during the three weeks I spent scanning Lake Oahe with binoculars and setting turtle traps in every nook and cranny of the reservoir. Although I learned a lot, I did not see a SINGLE false map turtle in Lake Oahe. We slept in tents along the Oahe shoreline and weathered five-foot swells in a little johnboat, but by the end of the trip we couldn’t report a single false map turtle sighting from Pierre to North Dakota.  

The lack of false map turtles was particularly shocking because a study from the early 60s revealed that the area used to contain the highest abundance of false map turtles in the state1. The natural question is, what happened?

Before dams were constructed on the Missouri River, the river was large, allowed to naturally meander, and was uncontrolled. Now, each of the six main stem dams controls the flow of the river, creating large flooded areas upstream from the dams called reservoir lakes. Lake Oahe is the largest of these areas on the Missouri. In fact, it is so large, that it can be seen from space!

Dams and reservoirs are known to drastically change the ecology, geology, and hydrology of the river. It seems that the false map turtle can’t thrive in this reservoir habitat. This isn’t a surprise; false map turtles are reported at higher densities in moving waters1

We can’t say for certain that there are absolutely no false map turtles in Lake Oahe, but it seems unlikely – especially considering how easy they are to spot in the flowing Missouri river by Vermillion. We could find dozens of false map turtles in a just a couple of hours in the flowing water habitat. They clearly prefer the natural current that exists there. A major aspect of the habitat is the snags, or sunken logs that protrude from the water, which are abundant in the shallow, moving stream. The turtles need places to bask to maintain an optimal body temperature, and snags are perfect beach chairs.

So, it’s more than likely that the Oahe reservoir destroyed the false map turtle habitat. The next question I investigated was if there were any threats to the turtle in the free-flowing stretch of the river. The turtles appear to be very abundant in this area, but is there anything creeping in the water that could endanger the health of the population?

One thing that is impossible to miss while driving in eastern South Dakota is the seemingly never-ending agricultural fields of corn and soybeans, nearly all of which use herbicides and pesticides to maintain their yields. Unfortunately, these chemicals can pollute nearby streams and tributaries and eventually find their way to the Missouri.

The most commonly used herbicide worldwide is Roundup®. The active agent, glyphosate, is present in nearly all Midwestern streams, and it is known to kill bacteria2. I wanted to find out if glyphosate had any major impact on the microbiome of false map turtles, seeing as changes to the microbiome is known to affect disease susceptibility and individual fitness3. I collected ten turtles from the main stem of the Missouri River and brought them back to the lab to run an experiment. I kept the turtles in individual tubs and randomly dosed five of them with Roundup®. Cloacal swabs taken before and after the treatment will soon be analyzed for bacteria species and diversity to see if glyphosate had an impact on the bacterial composition of the dosed turtles.

Additionally, when turtles were captured, we took a blood sample to later test for ranavirus; detection of ranavirus in turtles would be the first for the state. There may also be a correlation between presence of ranavirus and the types of bacteria found in the turtles.

The work on Lake Oahe will continue for at least another year, and the lab is continuing to venture into the little explored ecological communities of microbiomes. The Kerby Lab is a prolific hub made up of hardworking people that I was happy to be a part of. I’m certain that there are more exciting studies and discoveries to come.  

Check out the following links to learn more about the Kerby Lab and the amphibian and reptile research that is ongoing!

Shay is a senior pursuing her Program in the Environment major at the University of Michigan. She participated in the 11-week Sustainable RIVER REU in 2017, and researched the effects of contaminants on the false map turtle microbiome with her research mentor Dr. Kerby. Shay hoped to pursue a career in sustainability or in a wildlife program. 


Literature Cited

1. Timken, R.L. (1968). The Distribution and Ecology of Turtles in South Dakota (Doctoral dissertation).

2. Scribner et al. (2002). Reconnaissance Data for Glyphosate, Other Selected Herbicides, Their Degradation Products, and Antibiotics in 51 Streams in Nine Midwestern States, 2002. USGS Open-File Report 03-217, 101 pp.

3. Knutie et al. (2017).  Early-life disruption of amphibian microbiota decreases later-life resistance to parasites Nature Communications. 8: 86.   

A young false map turtle. 

Boat used to survey Lake Oahe.

Example of how turtle traps were set in Lake Oahe. 

Experimental tank where false map turtles were exposed to 
Roundup® and their microbiome was sampled. 

No Easy Solutions

posted Aug 31, 2017, 10:09 AM by Jillian Farkas   [ updated Nov 7, 2017, 2:18 PM ]

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The Missouri River is the largest river in the United States! The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with balancing eight different authorized purposes for the river; but it's impossible to manage the river in such a way to optimize all eight of these purposes. The Missouri River is complex, and it can be difficult to determine what's the right or wrong way to manage the river. Check out the video below featuring Dr. Meghann Jarchow to learn more! 

No Easy Solutions

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