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USD Researchers Study Effects of Missouri River Dams

Image Missouri River Research USD biology professor David Swanson and undergraduate interns Liz Kubal (left) and Audra Van Ekeren.

VERMILLION, S.D. -- Researchers with the University of South Dakota Missouri River Institute are tracking changes along the river corridor to determine the impact of dams on birds, insects and plants.

“They call it the circle of life for a reason,” said Liz Kubal, one of two USD undergraduate interns who worked on the project this summer in southeast South Dakota, considered the most natural segment of the river. “If our birds aren’t nesting correctly and our bird environment starts going down, then the insect environment might start getting too high. To keep a really good balance, you have to watch everything that’s going on.”

Before the Missouri River was dammed, cottonwood trees filled the floodplains. In the half century since the dams have been built, fewer cottonwoods are growing and more invasive plant species have sprouted in their place.

The USD research focuses on whether invasive plant species have impacted bird populations and nesting habits. The researchers look to see if the birds successfully hatch their young and if those young birds leave the nest like they had when the cottonwoods were more prevalent along the river banks. Another part of the research looks at aquatic insects and vegetation sampling in relation to the damming of the river.

David Swanson, Ph.D., professor in USD’s biology department and director of the Missouri River Institute, said the goal is to learn the impact of the river, so it can be managed to balance both flood control and the natural habitat. “What we’re interested in is making projections down the road. Then we can potentially make some adjustments that are better for the forest and the birds,” he said.

If changes in vegetation and bird populations are documented over time, researchers can use that data to project trends into the future. If the data documented show that the birds are thriving in specific habitats, then biologists could potentially re-create those environments by using more intensive management.

Watch and download a video of the research.

Download a photo: USD biology professor David Swanson and undergraduate interns Liz Kubal (left) and Audra Van Ekeren.


USD's College of Arts & Sciences offers students a top-notch undergraduate liberal arts education in the humanities, social sciences and sciences as well as graduate programs that have earned USD distinction as a research university by the Carnegie Foundation. The college's more than 22,000 alumni include famous journalists, Hollywood screenwriters, novelists, a Nobel Prize winner, South Dakota governors, attorneys, physicians, justices of the state Supreme Court, distinguished university faculty and international humanitarians.


Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.


Hanna DeLange
USD News