The Great Plains sometimes simply the Plains are major physiographic province of North America.
The Great Plains are the broad expanse of flat land (a plain), much of it covered in prairie, steppe, and grassland.
The Great Plains are located between the Rio Grande in the south and the delta of the Mackenzie River at the Arctic Ocean in the north and between the Interior Lowland and the Canadian Shield on the east and the Rocky Mountains on the west.
Their length is some 3,200 km (2,000 miles), their width is about 800 kilometers (500 miles), and their area approximately 1,300,000 square kilometers (500,000 square miles), roughly equivalent to one-seventh of the United States.
Their altitude at the base of the Rockies in the United States is between 1,500 and 1,800 meters (5,000 and 6,000 feet) above sea level; this decreases to 450 meters (1,500 feet) at their eastern boundary. The altitudes of the Canadian portion are lower, and near the Arctic Ocean the surface is only slightly above sea level.
The Great Plains embraces:
• The entirety of the U.S. states of Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota
• Parts of the states of Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming
• The southern portions of the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan
Natural vegetation in the Great Plains is dominated by grasses—tallgrass and medium grass prairie in the east and shortgrass and bunchgrass steppes in the west. These grasslands include forbs and larger plants such as the yucca and the prickly pear cactus in marginal areas, as well as shrubs and some small trees such as the mesquite and the sagebrush.
Before European settlement, the Great Plains were the home of immense herds of grazing mammals: the American bison and the pronghorn. The American bison were nearly eliminated, but the pronghorn continued to thrive. Other grassland-adapted animals that thrive together with agriculture include prairie dogs, coyotes, prairie chickens, and rattlesnakes. In the northern coniferous forests are found moose, woodland caribou, Canada lynx, and gray wolves (timber wolves). The region is not without its share of insect pests, such as the locust and the tiny chigger.
The term “Great Plains”, for the region was not generally used before the early 20th century. Nevin Fenneman’s 1916 study Physiographic Subdivision of the United States brought the term Great Plains into more widespread usage. Before that the region was almost invariably called the High Plains, in contrast to the lower Prairie Plains of the Midwestern states. Today the term “High Plains” is used for a subregion of the Great Plains.
The first Americans (Paleo-Indians) who arrived to the Great Plains were successive indigenous cultures who are known to have inhabited the Great Plains for thousands of years, over 15,000 years ago.
Historically the Great Plains were the range of the bison and of the culture of the Plains Indians, whose tribes included the Blackfoot, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and others.
With the arrival of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, a Spanish conquistador, the first recorded history of encounter between Europeans and Native Americans in the Great Plains occurred in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska from 1540 to 1542.
After the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and conducted the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804–1806, more information about the Plains became available and various pioneers entered the areas.
In the mid-19th century, settlers from the eastern United States began to supplant the Indians, the latter being relegated to marginal agricultural areas set aside as reservations.
The Great Plains are known for supporting extensive cattle ranching and farming.
The largest cities in the Plains are Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta and Denver in Colorado; smaller cities include Saskatoon and Regina in Saskatchewan, Amarillo, Lubbock, and Odessa in Texas, and Oklahoma City in Oklahoma.
The Great Plains contribute substantially to wind power in the United States.
The rural Plains have lost a third of their population since 1920.
Ghost towns are towns that are extinct or so diminished in population and function as to be virtually extinct. Ghost towns are the most common category of towns in the Great Plains.
The Canadian portion of the Plains is known as the Prairies.
In general, the Great Plains have a wide variety of weather through the year, with very cold and harsh winters and very hot and humid summers.