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The Plains as a Food Web

This is a multi-activity lesson on food webs that teaches students about the interconnections among landscapes, animals, plants, and humans. Students research animals and plants indigenous to a particular landform (plains), using source materials from the Internet and/or encyclopedias. Student creation of food web posterboards encourages use of visual images as instructive tools. A Nakota (Assiniboin) story about hunting bison (buffalo) illustrates that native societies were well aware of the importance of local food webs.

Key Concepts

Earth Science, Landforms, Landscapes and Food Webs


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Extended Lesson Plan





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Until recent times, Native Americans lived off the land, hunting animals for food and other uses, as well as gathering plants indigenous to the geographical areas where the individual tribes lived. Large game animals like the bison, elk, and deer were important sources of meat, hides, and bones, and these animals flourished in areas where grass was abundant. The bison in particular were crucial to those people living on the treeless plains of North America. The Nakota (Assiniboin) people were among those hunters who followed the massive herds of bison from place to place, as the animals searched for grass to eat. Today many of the Nakota live in present-day northeastern Montana and in southern Alberta, Canada. Plains are one of the major types of landforms (mountains and plateaus are others). A plain consists of flat or gently rolling land with low relief (thus, few relative differences in height along the land surface). A plain that lies distant from a continental coastline is called an interior plain. Although interior plains have low relief, their elevation above sea level can vary. The broad interior plain of North America is called the Great Plains, extending from Texas north into Canada. The Great Plains region stretches west to the Rocky Mountains from its long eastern border through the states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800s, the Great Plains were vast grasslands. If a plain lies along a seacoast, it is a coastal plain. In North America, a coastal plain spreads inland along the continent's eastern and southeastern shores. Coastal plains have both low elevation and low relief, making them vulnerable to flooding during hurricanes. The animals and plants typically found in the Great Plains are part of a very large food web, which in turn is made of many smaller food webs. Some animals are predators and some animals are prey. Animals can be carnivorous (meat eating), omnivorous (both meat and plant), or herbivorous (plant eating). When an animal or plant population changes in number or location, the entire food web changes. For example, the animal might increase in numbers or a plant might disappear. Any such change has consequences in the food web.


The purpose of this lesson is to give students an introductory understanding of food webs, the relationship among indigenous plants and animals in a region. Students research the types of plants and animals typically found in the plains region of the United States, discovering the interconnections between predators and prey and between herbivores and plant food sources. Students learn that changes in one animal or plant population can affect the rest of the local food web, as shown by the Native American appreciation of connections between bison herds and grasslands.


Edith Horn Wagner
Cultural Consultant - Blackfeet

I have been teaching for 12 years, two of which were in Frazer, MT. I currently teach 6th grade math and science for the Browning Public Schools. I am married and have 3 children.


Learner Outcomes

  • Recognize different types of cloud formations.
  • Understand features of weather forecasting, including the presence of specific cloud formations.
  • Record daily changes in local cloud formations and weather conditions.
  • Appreciate that native cultures recognized the importance of cloud types in predicting local weather.

Content Standards

  • Blah


  • Poster board
  • Glue sticks
  • Yarn/string
  • Colored pencils/pencils/markers
  • Internet access and/or encyclopedias
  • List of animals located on plains (one/student) ***Lisa will provide master copy
  • List of plants located on plains (one/student) ***Lisa will provide master copy
  • Magazines with pictures of plains plants and animals
  • Map of the United States (one/student) ***Lisa will provide master copy
  • For teacher-led activity – one poster board;15 pictures of coyotes and 4 pictures of mice ***Lisa will provide picture master copies

Lesson Procedures

  • Read to the class the Nakoda (Assiniboin) story about how Native Americans utilized the food web, as told by Ken Bigby. Ask students to share their thoughts about the story and what they learned from the story. Emphasize the connections among the humans, the animals, and the plants. My Nakoda ancestors were a nomadic people who lived on the plains. Their travels were influenced by the animals and the seasons. My people followed the Buffalo not only for their meat but also for all their materials that were used for day-to-day existence. The entire Buffalo was used when it was killed. The hide was used to make winter clothing, robes, lodges or anything else that they needed to use it for. There were different hides that were used for different things. For example, the hide from an old Buffalo bull could have been used for a shield or something that needed a thick hide. It could have been used for a floor mat or something like that. A hide from a cow or a calf was good for clothing because it was soft and pliable. My ancestors used the meat from the Buffalo as everyday food or dried meat or jerky. They boiled the horns and hooves to extract glue. The brains were used to tan the hide. There were many uses for the bones. My people made bone awls out of the smaller bones. They made hide scrapers out of the shoulder blades and they even made knives and weapons out of the bones. The entire animal was used. Even the Buffalo's droppings were used as a fuel for fire. On the plains, wood is sometimes very scarce so people used what they had. They needed to follow the animals in order to survive. In the tribe there was a person, the Medicine Man, who made the decision when to move the band. The Chief of the tribe had final say but the Medicine Man was an influence that could not be ignored. One way the Medicine Man could tell when to move the camp was to watch the types of grass and how high the grass was, which told when the Buffalo would start moving. Buffalo followed their own food sources, the grasses on the plains. There was something that the Medicine Man would do to encourage the moving of the Buffalo as well. In the early spring the Medicine Man would start a plains fire when the weather and the signs were right, burning off the old grass to be replaced by the new grass. He had to make sure the time was right or the new grass would not come. Hopefully the Buffalo would follow the new grass and come to the area where the band would want them to be. When this worked, the Medicine Man was greatly thanked, but sometimes it didn't work and the people would have to go and look for the Buffalo rather than have herds come to them. Then the Medicine Man would lose prestige until something else that he predicted or fixed worked well, giving back his important place in the tribe. The Medicine Man of those days would today be called a botanist. They needed to know what types of grass there were and when these grasses would grow, what time of year was best for burning to make room for the new year's growth, and what the animals were more prone to eat. Not only would the new grass bring the Buffalo, but it would bring the other grass-eating animals that were used to supplement the tribes' food source. Elk, Deer, Antelope, and other grass-eating animals were attracted by the new grass too. This in turn attracted the Wolf, Coyote, Fox, Cougar, and other meat-eating animals. The Nakoda people also used the hides and other things from these meat-eating animals of the plains. So the burning of the plains and the knowledge of the grass and food web were something that the Medicine Man needed to know if he wanted to be able to tell the Chief where a good camp should be located.
  • Give each student lists of plants and animals of the plains.; Give each student a map of the United States.
  • Ask students to locate the plains areas in the United States and color those areas on the U.S. map.
  • Have students find information (in encyclopedias or on the Internet) about five animals on the plains list and five plants on the plains list.
  • Tell students to also find pictures of their five animals and five plants from magazines and the Internet.
  • Divide students into groups to discuss their respective animals and plants. Have each group work together to decide what their group's animals usually eat.
  • Have students glue pictures of their animals and plants on the poster board (there will be quite a few animals and plants, depending on group size). If the food for the animal is on the poster board, have students paste a piece of yarn connecting the food and the animal. If the food for the animal is not on the poster board, have students write in the name of the food and attach a yarn string between the animal and the food name.
  • Bring class back together. Discuss what the final poster board looks like. It should look like a web. Why does it look this way?
  • Teacher-led activity: Glue all 15 of the coyote pictures to another poster board. Describe to the students a situation where, in one year, there is a sudden increase in the coyote population. Now fasten the four mice pictures on the board and describe a concurrent decrease in the mouse population, one of the primary foods of the coyote. Have students glue yarn or string from one coyote to a mouse, until there are no more mice.
  • Discuss with the students what the remaining coyotes will do for food. What will happen to them? Emphasize the key point that when one part of the food chain changes, this affects other parts.



  • Participation in class discussions and activities
  • Participation in group food-web chart
  • Individual collection of plant and animal information/pictures


  • Select another landform such as mountains, find the plants and animals of the mountains, and make more food webs.
  • Discuss whether you have noticed that populations of wild animals or plants in your area sometimes change in number or location.