BISMARCK (AP) - Cottonwood trees that once dominated forests along the Missouri River are in danger of disappearing, a North Dakota Forest Service official says.
Cottonwoods are declining because of dam-caused changes in river flow, development along the river and changes in land use, said Tom Claeys, forestry and fire management team leader for the state Forest Service. Other species such as Russian olive trees are now taking over the ecosystem, and once the existing cottonwoods succumb to old age, the cottonwood forests might well be lost forever, he told The Bismarck Tribune.
"This is an issue from Montana all the way downstream," Claeys said.
Cottonwoods can be used for everything from fuel to building materials to food - twigs, young branches and saplings are a hay substitute for horses, and people can eat the tree's inner bark for its nutritional value and sweetness. The trees have long been important in American Indian culture.
"A good stand of cottonwoods means the earth was healthy," said Cedric Goodhouse, of Fort Yates, whose wife, Sissy, teaches the Lakota language and other classes at the town's high school.
A number of studies have been conducted on the state of the cottonwood stands, dating back to the 1970s. In 2010, a study published by the North Dakota Forest Service estimated there were about 66,000 acres of cottonwood forests. By 2005 the amount had dropped nearly 20 percent to 55,000 acres.
"Based on the degradation of the ecosystem, it's a sign that things are out of balance," Claeys said. "They are key to our history. We need to recognize they are part of our past ... and hopefully part of (our) future."
One of the last remaining cottonwood forests along the river stretches from the Garrison Dam in central North Dakota downstream for about 100 miles.