Dams were already killing off North Dakota’s cottonwood trees. Climate change could hasten their decline

Predominant across the American West, cottonwoods have become an unofficial symbol of the Dakotas, where they cover the banks of the Missouri River and its many tributaries.

But with the construction of large-scale dams decades ago, humans have already crippled the future of cottonwoods along the country’s longest river. Now, scientists believe increasing weather volatility under the planet’s warming climate will exacerbate the hard times ahead for these iconic trees, especially on the Missouri.

“I’d say there’s about another 50 years and you will have reached the lifespan of 90% of the trees,” said Carter Johnson, an emeritus professor at South Dakota State University and a leading expert in the ecology of the Dakotas.

This projected near-eradication of cottonwoods in the Missouri River Valley is not new. Johnson and colleagues first studied the potentially grave consequences of the federal damming effort more than 50 years ago, predicting at the time that the tight management of the formerly natural river system would deplete its cottonwood population.

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While the longtime Dakotas ecologist said he has not yet logged

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