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Rapid City Forest and Grassland Research Laboratory

The Forest and Grassland Research Laboratory in Rapid City, South Dakota concentrates on problems identified by the public, resource managers, and the science community from the central and northern Great Plains region, including the Black Hills.

Our research is primarily concentrated in the following areas:

  • Invasive Species: developing the tools and techniques to evaluate and manage the increasingly rapid spread of invasive plant species

  • Wildlife: developing the knowledge and tools for managing and sustaining proper function of natural and restored ecosystems to provide ecosystem services and wildlife habitat

  • For Stakeholders: In addition to invasive species and wildlife issues, the Forest and Grassland Research Laboratory is conducting research to address additional questions asked of us by our stakeholders

The Forest and Grassland Research Laboratory in Rapid City has two scientists:

  • Dr. Jack Butler, Research Ecologist, whose research addresses invasive species impacts, biological control of invasive species and community restoration, and range ecology.

  • Dr. Mark Rumble,  Research Wildlife Biologist, whose research addresses land management effects on wildlife populations and habitat.

Invasive Species

Invasive species research is focused on developing best management practices of invasive plants, including evaluating the efficacy of chemical and biological control and examining the subsequent restoration of native plant communities.

  • Leafy spurge (Euphorbiaceae: Euphorbia esula)

    Flea Beetles Controlling Leafy Spurge
    Flea Beetles Controlling Leafy Spurge
    is an invasive plant threatening the structural and functional integrity of wildlands throughout much of northern North America. Biological control agents, specifically Aphthona flea beetles, have successfully reduced the foliar cover and density of leafy spurge below and ecological and economic threshold shortly after release. However, the long-term efficacy of flea beetles on the target plant are unknown; consequently, we have several long-term monitoring sites used to investigate not only the efficacy of flea beetles, but also the target and non-target effects of using herbicides to control leafy spurge.

  • Once controlled, the residual effects of leafy spurge infestations on the remaining native species and communities are unknown. Leafy spurge appears to have a strong filtering effect on plant species composition, which has important implications for restoration management following successful control. We are working to increase our understanding of how these residual effects may potentially alter success ional trajectories, which is needed as a part of a complete management plan for leafy spurge.

  • Severe disturbances of natural landscapes incurred by timber harvest creates new habitat for invasive plants. Large infestations of several plant species (e.g. Canada thistle, spotted and Russian knapweeds, musk thistle, and common mullein) have resulted from extensive timber harvest, both spatially and temporally, on the Black Hills National Forest. In order to develop a sound management plan for invasive plants, we must have a thorough understanding of the dynamics of the understory plant community following three common timber harvest methods. Additionally, the current weed management plan instituted by the Black Hills NF had not been quantified. Consequently, managers need information that rigorously evaluates the effectiveness of current strategies to control invasive plants.

  • Sickleweed (Brassicaceae: Falcaria vulgaris) has been present on the South Dakota grasslands since the 1940s. However, the species was not considered an ecological problem because it never reached infestation levels until recently. Currently, the Fort Pierre National Grasslands has several thousand acres heavily infested by this exotic species. Very little is known about sickleweed, so in order to successfully combat it, we must understand the basic biology and ecology, and its response to herbicide treatments.


Blackbacked Woodpecker
Blackbacked Woodpecker
Wildlife research at the Forest and Grassland Research Laboratory is directed toward answering questions of the effects various land management activities (primarily grazing and timber harvest) have on communities and populations of wildlife in an ecological context. Current research projects include:

  • Black-backed woodpeckers are an uncommon resident,  classified as Sensitive Species by the Forest Service rely on the abundant food resources in these recently killed forests. We are developing understanding of how Black-backed woodpeckers select resources in ponderosa pine forests killed by mountain pine beetles and contrasting that with how they select resources in recently burned areas.

  • Aspen in the Black Hills has declined by an estimated 60% due to forest management practices and policies for the past 100 years. The benefits of aspen to biological diversity and ecosystems function and services are well understood. The Black Hills National Forest plans to double amount of aspen in the next 10-15 years and the Ruffed grouse is the management indicator species for aspen. We are developing a statistically valid protocol for monitoring the Ruffed grouse populations as the management indicator of healthy aspen ecosystems.

    Greater Sage Grouse
    Greater Sage Grouse

  • Greater sage grouse populations have been  declining at a long-term rate of about 2% per year. These sagebrush obligates seem to be reflecting the health and extent of sagebrush ecosystems and are classified as Sensitive Species by the Forest Service and BLM. The sagebrush ecosystems in eastern Wyoming and Montana, and western South Dakota and North Dakota differ substantially from those in the core of sagebrush regions and have different stressors to the ecosystem. We are developing basic ecological understanding of Greater Sage-grouse at the eastern edge of its range and evaluating hypotheses of resource selection developed from the core areas of the range. We also are studying the effects of oil and gas development on them.

  • Merriam’s turkeys were introduced to the Black Hills in the 1950’s. This interesting and colorful bird has become an integral part of the tourism and recreational industry of the Black Hills. We are in the final stages of more than 9 years of research to develop understanding of the mechanisms that drive resource selection and populations of Merriam’s turkeys.


In addition to invasive species and wildlife issues, the Forest and Grassland Research Laboratory is conducting research to address additional questions asked of us by our stakeholders.

  • Prairie dogs and prairie dog towns are keystone species and habitats in the northern Great Plains. Many sensitive species are dependent upon prairie dogs and their colonies for survival, not the least of which is the most endangered mammal in the U.S., the black footed ferret. Despite the ecological significance of prairie dogs, many consider the prairie dog to be a pest. This creates conflict over use of public lands that must be addressed using sound, unbiased scientific knowledge. We are developing an understanding of the impacts prairie dogs have on the vegetation on- and off-town sites and how the prairie dog ecosystem relates to grassland ecology and management.

  • Disturbances on the Black Hills National Forest, such as wildfire, fire breaks, and logging roads, are rehabilitated post-disturbance. This is often done by reseeding, but due to lack of local seed sources, it is done from seeds originating in locations other than the Black Hills. By introducing ecotypic variation into the ecosystem, we may be threatening the genetic integrity of native plant ecotypes. We are investigating the native grass and forb species that can be readily collected and germinated, and then easily reproduced to supply the Forest with local seeds for restoration.

  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park in southwest North Dakota is experiencing an expanding population of elk. As part of the Ecological Impact Assessment required to address this problem, we are collaborating with NPS and USGS to develop vegetation monitoring tools that can be used quantify the ecological impact of a growing elk population on the vegetation resources.

8221 South Highway 16
Rapid City, SD 57702