Contact Us

Missouri River Institute
Churchill-Haines, Room 168E
414 E. Clark St.
Vermillion, SD 57069
Office Hours
Monday - Friday
8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Studying a Rich and Extensive Ecosystem

The Missouri River Institute (MRI) focuses on research and education around the Missouri River Basin and its challenges. Our location on the 59-mile segment of the Missouri National Recreational River gives us unique access to this special section of river. Through outreach efforts, MRI educates the public on the history and cultural significance of the river.

A collaboration between faculty across USD, the MRI leverages a wide variety of expertise, including biology, chemistry, earth science, education, anthropology, media and journalism, history, computer science, business and law. Graduate and undergraduate students participate in river research and database programming. The institute is able to conduct research using its own boats and sampling equipment.

Our Partners

Faculty & Staff

Get to know the faculty and staff in the Missouri River Institute. Our faculty are experts in their field, contributing research and scholarship in ecology, sustainability, geology, cultural history and education.
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David Swanson

Dir of Research, MO River Inst
Bio Image for Faculty Member Elise Boxer

Elise Boxer

Director, Inst of Amer Indian
Bio Image for Faculty Member Mark Dixon

Mark Dixon

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Paul Formisano

Director of Writing
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Meghann Jarchow

Chair, Sustainability & Enviro
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Jacob Kerby

Chair, Biology
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Molly Rozum

Assoc Prof/R.Nelson Distg Prof
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Mark Sweeney

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Michelle Van Maanen

Chair, Media & Journalism
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Jeff Wesner

Associate Professor


Our expert faculty spearhead research and scholarship efforts that advance the mission of the Missouri River Institute. At USD, our students actively contribute to research at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Biodiversity Responses to Backwater Restoration on the Missouri National Recreational River

The Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR) preserves and protects a relatively natural and free-flowing 98-mile segment of the heavily disturbed Missouri River. Despite the natural qualities of MNRR, backwaters and other off-channel habitat areas have been declining since the closure of the mainstem dams in the 1950s. Backwaters are known to be necessary and highly productive habitats within the large river ecosystem. This project examines the responses of plants, aquatic invertebrates, fish, and amphibian biodiversity to a three-acre backwater restoration project at Bow Creek, a National Park Service property. The reconstruction will restore a former Missouri River backwater through excavation to hydraulically reconnect it to the main channel of the Missouri River via groundwater and surface water.

The project will include conduct of biodiversity surveys (aquatic and terrestrial vegetation, fish, macro-invertebrates, and amphibians) before and after completion of the backwater restoration to determine how species richness and abundance of the different biologic groups vary as a function of the backwater restoration. Data from this project will inform future restoration projects within MNRR and throughout the Missouri River. This is the highest natural resource priority for the MNRR as it represents a unique opportunity to monitor a newly reconstructed habitat.

Contact:, University of South Dakota

Impact of Invasive Tree Species on Floodplain Bird Nesting Success along the Missouri National Recreational River

Floodplain forests, particularly those dominated by plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides), support among the highest levels of bird diversity of any habitat type in the Great Plains region, but native floodplain forests have been greatly reduced and degraded since the time of Euro-American settlement. These changes have promoted the invasion of floodplain forests by native upland and non-native tree species. These changes are likely to substantially impact breeding bird populations and nesting success, so we are investigating the influence of invasive tree species (principally Russian olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia, and eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginianus) on nesting success of birds in floodplain forest habitats along the Missouri National Recreational River.

The project involves finding and monitoring bird nests to determine nest fates for floodplain forest birds and comparing nest site selection and nesting success for bird species occupying habitats dominated by native and invasive trees and shrubs within floodplain forests along the Missouri River. Our comparisons of bird nesting success use statistical models to evaluate nesting success as a function of nest site and nest patch-level vegetation characteristics, including the preponderance of invasive tree species. The goal of the study is to determine important factors influencing nesting success for floodplain forest birds and the effect of invasive tree species on nest site selection and nest productivity. These data will help inform management decisions regarding invasive tree species and bird communities in Missouri River floodplain forests.

Contact:, University of South Dakota

Mapping Social Values Toward Land Use in the Upper Missouri River Basin

The Upper Missouri River Basin (UMRB) is among the least populated regions in the contiguous United States, and it produces large amounts of food, feed, and energy. Therefore, the use of the landscape is foundational to the economy and identities of many of the people in the region. There is growing awareness that landscapes need to be managed to optimize the production of many ecosystem services including cultural ecosystem services. The purpose of this research is to assess and map the social values of residents of the UMRB toward their landscapes.

In order to assess and map the social values of residents, we developed a land-use typology for the UMRB. Land-use values typologies exist for other geographic regions in the United States (e.g. forests), but not for the agricultural landscapes of the UMRB. Using information collected from semi-structured interviews across the UMRB, we developed a land-use values typology for the UMRB. We then used that values typology to conduct door-to-door surveys in 12 cities across the UMRB. In the survey, participants were asked to map up to four of the social values from the values typology above onto their surrounding landscape. We will use machine learning modeling algorithms to link mapped social values with environmental landscape features and to create integrated social-values maps of the UMRB.


Modeling Bird Biodiversity under Differing Bioenergy Land Use Scenarios in the Upper Missouri River Basin

Negative CO2 emission pathways, in which biofuels are grown to produce energy and carbon capture and sequestration technologies are used to store CO2 in geologic reservoirs and ecosystems, are an important element of climate mitigation strategies. However, the impact of a bioenergy and carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) strategy on regional economic and ecosystem services is essentially unknown. This project involves collaborations between Montana State University (MSU), the University of Wyoming (UW) and the University of South Dakota (USD) to evaluate the consequences of a negative CO2 emissions pathway and a BECCS economy in the Upper Missouri River Basin (UMRB).

One important goal of this collaborative research is to addresses the trade-offs associated with transitioning to a biofuel-driven BECCS economy. One important ecosystem service that is likely to show trade-offs under various BECCS land use scenarios is regional bird biodiversity. The current project seeks to model grassland bird distributions, species richness and population abundances and project those biodiversity estimates into the future under different relevant land use scenarios for the UMRB. We focus on grassland birds because this guild is currently showing the greatest population declines for any bird guild. The modeling efforts will use the most recent ecological modeling strategies to modeling not only species distributions, but also populations abundances, under changing climate and land use trends at a regional scale. These data will identify trade-offs in economic and ecosystem services and help inform decisions regarding regional land management and environmental policy.

Contact:, University of South Dakota

Assessment of Land Cover Change and Cottonwood Forest Structure along the Missouri River

This project describes the current status, past changes and future projections for cottonwood forests along the Missouri River, from Montana to Missouri.

Key components of the project include:

  • Use of GIS with current and historical imagery to quantify floodplain land cover, historic change and present-day cottonwood area and age distribution.
  • Vegetation sampling to assess species composition and age structure of remnant cottonwood forest stands.

This project uses land cover change analyses and vegetation sampling to forecast future changes in cottonwood forest area, composition and age structure within the Missouri River floodplain.

Contact:, University of South Dakota

Turtle Ecology Along the Lake Oahe and Missouri National Recreational River segments of the Missouri River

Turtle populations within the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR) are impacted by a number of factors. These include limited access to nesting sites and winter mortality. This study focuses on false map (pictured) and softshell turtles. Both species are of conservation concern in South Dakota. This study uses mark-recapture methods to examine habitat relationships, population dynamics and abundance of turtle populations on the river. The study also uses radio-tracking to document turtle movement patterns and habitat use for nesting and hibernation. These data will help inform conservation and management of turtles within the MNRR.

Contact:, University of South Dakota

Making an Impact

With expert faculty, incredible research opportunities and strong regional partnerships , USD's research centers foster academic excellence and spur economic growth. 
Overview of the Missouri River and Sandbars

Sharing the Stories of the River

The impact of development along the river can best be understood by hearing the stories of the people who witnessed the change. The MRI documented oral histories of more than 30 long-time Missouri River residents to document the pre-development conditions and how that changed after dams were constructed. The interviews help to guide conservation efforts and provide insight into the local culture. All interviews are digitally archived at the USD Oral History Center and National Park Service Archives. 


Oral History Center
Park Ranger Speaking to a Group of Students by the Missouri River

Missouri River Research Symposium

The Missouri River Institute hosts an annual research symposium, bringing in speakers  and researchers to talk about current issues related to the Missouri River. The next symposium is scheduled for November 2022.


Oral History Center
Faculty Preparing Students for a Canoe Field Trip

Knowledge Through Education

The Missouri River Institute offers courses on river studies and the science, culture and history of the Missouri River at the University of South Dakota. Close proximity to the Missouri River allows for field trips, active discussion and hands-on learning as students and faculty explore one of our greatest natural resources.


Departments & Facilities

Explore the departments and facilities that contribute to the work conducted by the Missouri River Institute. 
Biology academics standing in water holding a net


Research, explore and experience the study of life from the molecule to large biomes in the Department of Biology.

Faculty and students researching on Spirit Mound near Vermillion

Sustainability & Environment

The field of sustainability invites us to examine the world we live in and imagine the possibilities for a brighter future. Find solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges through the Department of Sustainability & Environment.

Historic Photo Placed Over Current East Hall Building


At the University of South Dakota, our Department of History houses numerous disciplines that exist at the intersection of curiosity, research, writing, storytelling and the human experience. Find the answers to your questions about people, events, institutions and values with the guidance and support of our exceptional faculty.

Photo of the Media and Journalism building

Media & Journalism

Media connects us to each other and our world. Explore the art of storytelling and media marketing through the Department of Media & Journalism.

USD students conducting dig site research.

Anthropology & Sociology

Human behavior. Biology. Culture. Societies. Social change. Explore what brings us together and what makes us unique on biological and social levels through the Department of Anthropology & Sociology.

Chemist Student Examining a Piece of Material


USD Chemistry is a tight-knit community of scholars. Undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, and faculty work together in the classroom and the laboratory to solve some of today's biggest challenges in health, energy and the environment.

Computer Science person looking at a computer screen

Computer Science

Learn to develop and manage technology that changes the world in the Department of Computer Science.

Discover the Missouri River

The outreach efforts of the Missouri River Institute provide resources for others to explore the river on their own through education, exploration and research. The Missouri River Basin Education Network provides resources for students and teachers. The Missouri National Recreational River water trail extends nearly 100 miles and was established for canoes and kayakers to explore the river safely. For researches, the Missour River water quality database is a useful tool that is kept up-to-date throug the water quality monitoring network.

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