My route crossed paths with all sorts of wildlife, some more wild than others as we rolled through endless terrain in a land largely devoid of people. We never pushed deep into backcountry so I didn’t see anything too exotic — and no rattlesnakes thank goodness, which were supposedly quite common — still our roadside trips and short hikes into state and national parks presented a decent representative sample of Northern Plains fauna. If you don’t have a soft spot for cute and cuddly animals you might want to skip this article and wait for the final installment of Center of the Nation in a few days. Or just look at the photos. I won’t take it personally.
See what I mean? Prairie Dogs were the very embodiment of cute and cuddly. They were as common on the plains as squirrels back home on the east coast. That shouldn’t have been too surprising I supposed, since prairie dogs were simply a type of ground squirrel uniquely adapted to the dry grasslands of the continental interior. We saw their burrows practically everywhere, in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at Wyoming’s Devils Tower, and many places in between.
Our closest personal observations took place at Devils Tower (map). A large prairie dog village ran along the main park road and that’s where most of the tourists focused their efforts. We went to the back side of the village instead and hiked along a trail that ran amongst the creatures that tourist hordes generally avoided. Prairie dogs popped in and out of burrows, stood on their hind legs, barked warnings of our impending arrival and behaved in their characteristic adorable manner. Signs along the trail warned visitors to keep a distance from wildlife though. Vicious behavior wasn’t the concern, it was a disease called tularemia that prairie dogs could pass to humans. They might also be able to spread the plague. With that in mind, cute still rang true although cuddly might need to be struck from the list.
We spotted feral horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (map), that have "existed in the Badlands of western North Dakota since the mid-1800s." Their ancestors escaped from the original European explorers centuries earlier and adapted quite well to the plains. Originally the National Park Service thought of mustangs as pests that needed to be removed. However their opinion began to change by the 1970’s. Wild horses came to be considered an important part of what made this the Old West. Horses ran in small bands throughout the park. Originally I thought they must have belonged to nearby ranchers until we returned to the Visitor Center and learned that they were indeed feral.
Spotting a flock of Canada Geese outside of Bowman, North Dakota (map) wasn’t all that remarkable. I’ve seen plenty of geese in many places and I’m sure anyone living in North America has experienced much the same. I took notice only because they were flying south, an early sign of Autumn, of Winter looming just around the corner. We already felt a slight chill in the air on mid-September mornings. Winter came early in higher latitudes and grasslands would soon give way to snow. Our hotel in Montana even had metal posts at the end of each parking spot where guests could plug-in their cars to keep their engine oil warm. Like the geese, I felt we left at the right time.
I’d hoped to see Bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park although that plan didn’t work out as intended. Our encounter would have to wait until we drove the Wildlife Loop Road at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We entered the park expecting the best and saw nothing. We feared a repeat of our earlier debacle until rangers told us the herd had migrated to the southern end of the park (map). Finally!
They were noble creatures, as magnificent as I’d remembered from years ago in Yellowstone. It was hard to imagine the great bands that once roamed the Great Plains freely, and then their near extinction as indiscriminate hunters pushed their population down to 500. Bison have rebounded to a degree, with a half million specimens today although "the total number of mature individuals in wild free-ranging and semi-free-ranging populations is estimated to be approximately 11,250 and only 5 subpopulations have more than 1,000 individuals." The great herds will never return although one can still get a sense of what it must have been like at a handful of state and national parks.
"Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day."
(from "Home on the Range" – 1874).
Custer State Park definitely became the place to see wild animals during our adventure, so once again a hearty round of applause goes to the Twelve Mile Circle audience for suggesting it (map). Custer mirrored Home on the Range although ironically the song labeled two of the major animals incorrectly. Bison are not technically buffalo and Pronghorn aren’t antelopes although they’re commonly called Pronghorn Antelopes. Pronghorn are the last surviving member of the family Antilocapridae. There used to a dozen North American species during the Pleistocene period (about 1.8 million years ago until the last Ice Age) and only Antilocapra americana — the pronghorn — avoided extinction. They adapted well and remained quite numerous on the Great Plains.
Trivia: their closest living relatives are giraffids (e.g., giraffes).
I wondered how burros differed from donkeys. I knew male donkeys and female horses produced mules. What might account for burros? A little Intertubes sleuthing showed that burro was nothing more than a Spanish word for small donkey. Mystery solved, I turned my attention to the burros of Custer State Park. Many called them the "begging burros." We lived through the begging firsthand (map). A burro would wander into traffic, slowing cars down. His buddies would then walk up to each window extorting handoffs.
These were not pets, they were feral. Entrepreneurs brought their ancestors here to carry visitors to the top of nearby Harney Peak, the South Dakota highpoint. Eventually tours were discontinued. Those in charge decided it would easier to simply set the burros free to fend for themselves. Decades later, the burros extract their revenge by hassling tourists as they drive through the park, an equine version of panhandlers.
I couldn’t resist taking a photo when I saw these wonderful folk art animal cutouts in Sundance, Wyoming (map). The race we attended that day took place on the town’s rodeo grounds. The cutouts were part of their annual celebration although we were entirely out of season.
Apparently pigs don’t have a predetermined number of teats although 12-14 would be good number and 16 would be ideal. The anthropomorphised cartoon version apparently had two, which she covered modestly with a bikini top. Neither sow nor boar saw fit to cover their nether regions though.
Center of the Nation articles:
- Part 1 (Center?)
- Part 2 (States and Counties)
- Part 3 (Trails)
- Part 4 (Terrain)
- Part 5 (Wildlife)
- Part 6 (Inspirations)
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr