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The High Plains: Land of Extremes

Teaching Materials by Ranel Stephenson Capron, Richard Brook, and Elizabeth Rieben for the Bureau of Land Management - Starting Point page by R.E. Teed (SERC).

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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: August 10, 2006


This site covers the physical features of the High Plains (or Great Plains), the grasses and plants of the area, prairie dog ecosystems, riparian areas, mining, management, water resources, and fire cycles. Student activities are based on the study of groundwater movement, energy resources, wind energy, and riparian areas. A debate allows students to understand the viewpoints of different interest groups in considering whether the black-footed ferret should be reintroduced onto public lands.

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Learning Goals

Students will:

  • Learn about the ecosystems and habitats of the High Plains.
  • Consider specific problems associated with re-introducing black-footed ferrets into the area.
  • Become acquainted with the perspectives of the people whose interests are involved in the re-introduction of the ferret.
  • Assess healthy vs. unhealthy riparian areas.

Context for Use

The lesson plan is split into two parts ("Activity 1" and "Activity 2)" intended for two separate class periods or weeks (each of which needs to include several hours of class time). The role-playing activity itself should only take an hour, although the students will need to research their roles in advance.

Teaching Materials

The High Plains: Land of Extremes includes the lesson plan, a long background article, some lab activities, and a bibliography on the High Plains. For the role-playing activity, everything needed is available at the site, including detailed roles. If a field trip is included, the teacher needs to be able to visit nearby streams.

Teaching Notes and Tips

To adapt the lesson for university students, the instructor should probably include a written component, which will also make assessment easier.


None, except for informal discussion questions for the field trip.

References and Resources

Basic information about the history and ecology of the black-footed ferret is available at:

According to the above links, recovery of the black-footed ferret population depends on range extension for prairie dogs. Black-footed ferrets aren't the only species dependent on prairie dogs. The Prairie Dog Coalition argues that the black-tailed prairie dog is a keystone species upon which many other species depend. This idea raises serious concerns among many people who will be living in prairie dog country.

  • Prairie dogs are a dangerous vector for bubonic plague, even at their current low population levels:
    • US Fish and Wildlife Service - Mountain-Prairie Region
    • Bryce Canyon National Park - Note the warning in the last paragraph
    • News Article with Notes on Bubonic Plague
  • Prairie Dogs, like cattle, are grazers and may compete with cattle, especially on heavily grazed public lands.
    • A Forest Service paper indicating little or long-term effects of prairie dog removal on forage
    • A US Dept. of Agriculture paper that shows that cattle benefit prairie dog populations.
    • A Conservation Site with some facts for both sides.