Lessons Learned from Wetlands Research at the Cottonwood Lake Study Area, Stutsman County, North Dakota, 1967–2021

Professional Paper 1874
By: , and 



Depressional wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region of North America have a long history of investigation owing to their importance in maintaining migratory-bird populations, especially waterfowl. One area of particularly intensive study is the Cottonwood Lake study area in Stutsman County, North Dakota. Studies at the Cottonwood Lake study area began in 1967 and continue through the present (2022). During this period of scientific discovery, meteorological conditions at the Cottonwood Lake study area varied greatly and included one of the most severe droughts of the 20th century and one of the wettest periods in the past 500 years.

Persistent wet conditions that began in 1993 have contributed to state changes in many of the study area’s larger wetlands to lake-like conditions, whereas the smaller wetlands returned to seasonally ponded conditions during relatively dry years interspersed within the longer-term wet period. Additionally, some nonwetland areas of the study area developed wetland plant, hydrology, and soil characteristics during the 1993-to-present (2022) wet period. The persistently high stages of water in the larger wetlands since 1993 contributed to a buildup of dissolved solids and increases in salinity with time following an initial decrease in salinity caused by the dilution of dissolved solids within a larger volume of water. During 2021, drought conditions similar to the 1988 to 1992 period may develop if conditions persist. However, meteorological changes during the past 30 years have persisted long enough to be considered a change in climate conditions at the study area and, if such wet conditions continue, would represent a change from conditions that occurred in the past two millennia.

During the period of study covered in this report (1967–2021), biotic communities responded in a variety of ways to subtle and marked changes in ponded-water depths, permanence, and salinity among the different wetland types in the study area. This report provides background information on the Cottonwood Lake study area and its context within the Prairie Pothole Region, documents techniques used to quantify environmental conditions and biotic communities, describes major trends that have been observed, presents significant findings as “lessons learned,” discusses recent modeling advances, and highlights key messages to managers. The Wetland Continuum concept was used as a framework to place research findings within an ecological context and to highlight the dynamic nature of prairie-pothole wetland ecosystems.

Suggested Citation

Mushet, D.M., Euliss, N.H., Jr., Rosenberry, D.O., LaBaugh, J.W., Bansal, S., Levy, Z.F., McKenna, O.P., McLean, K.I., Mills, C.T., Neff, B.P., Nelson, R.D., Solensky, M.J., and Tangen, B.A., 2022, Lessons learned from wetlands research at the Cottonwood Lake Study Area, Stutsman County, North Dakota, 1967–2021: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1874, 162 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1874.

ISSN: 2330-7102 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Study Chronicle
  • Study Area
  • Methods
  • Trends
  • Lessons Learned
  • PHyLiSS—Development of a Systems Simulation Model for Prairie-Pothole Wetlands
  • Key Messages to Managers
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Cottonwood Lake Study Area Bibliography
  • Appendix 2. Data Reports and Data Releases
  • Appendix 3. Standard Operating Procedures—Water Chemistry Sampling (Wetlands)
  • Appendix 4. Standard Operation Procedures—Monthly Bird Counts
  • Appendix 5. Standard Operation Procedures—Breeding-Bird Surveys
  • Appendix 6. Standard Operation Procedures—Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Sampling
  • Appendix 7. Standard Operation Procedures—Amphibian Funnel-Trap Sampling
  • Appendix 8. Water-Surface Elevations of Wetland Ponds—1979 to 2021
  • Appendix 9. Specific Conductance of Wetland Pond Water—1979 to 2021
  • Appendix 10. Aquatic Macroinvertebrates of the Cottonwood Lake Study Area
  • Appendix 11. Breeding-Bird Survey—Indicated Pairs
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Lessons learned from wetlands research at the Cottonwood Lake Study Area, Stutsman County, North Dakota, 1967–2021
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 1874
DOI 10.3133/pp1874
Year Published 2022
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Description Report: xi, 162 p.; Data releases: 19
Country United States
State North Dakota
County Stutsman County
Other Geospatial Cottonwood Lake Study Area
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details