It has been estimated that when Europeans first arrived on New World soil that 40–60 million bison roamed the great plains. One hundred years after the Lewis and Clark expedition, less than 1,000 bison were alive in the country. Alarmed, ranchers started private herds, some were preserved in zoos, and there were a few small herds left near Yellowstone in Wyoming.
Conservationists and hunters both realized that bison could disappear from the prairie environment forever if action wasn’t taken. In 1911, the American Bison society began searching for places to establish a protected habitat for the bison. Wind Cave National Park was one of the first places where bison were restored to the wild. Twenty animals were donated to the park in 1913. Six came from the Yellowstone herd. Fourteen animals were donated by the New York Zoological Society. Today, the herd numbers 450, a size estimated to be optimal for the bison and for the available 28,000 acres of range in the park. In recent years, traces of cattle genes have been found in most bison herds. The Wind Cave herd, however, has been tested and it is has been determined that the herd is pure buffalo, untainted by any trace of cattle genes.
Other animals, including the pronghorn and the elk, were also re-introduced to Wind Cave in the early 1900s. Today, the pronghorn herd numbers 250–300 animals, and the elk, which drift into and out of the park, have an estimated population of up to 500 animals. Conservation work continues at the park. The endangered black-footed ferret was reintroduced in July 2007.
The bison at Wind Cave are not the only bison in the region. Bison were reintroduced to Custer State Park in 1914, shortly after the Wind Cave herd was established, with the purchase of 36 bison. By 1940, the herd size there had increased to over 2,500 animals. At that size, the herd was overgrazing the rangeland and it was determined that a healthy sustainable herd should number around 1,500 animals, the number that roams through the 73,000 acres of the park today. The annual Buffalo Roundup, which occurs in Custer State Park in late September, is open to the public, and is the time when the herd is vaccinated against disease and culled if necessary.
Bison are confined within these large range areas, but most of the wildlife of the Black Hills come and go as they please through the parks and are found throughout the hills. Easily visible animals include whitetail deer and their large-eared relatives, the mule deer. The beautiful snowy white mountain goat can be seen in the northern corners of Custer State Park and are also frequently spotted around Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial. The mountain goat is unique to North America but is not a native species in the Black Hills. Stocked in the region in 1924, it has since thrived. The original bighorn sheep species in South Dakota, the Audubon subspecies, became extinct in 1920. A herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were introduced to Custer State Park and can still be seen, generally north of Bluebell Lodge in the park. The prairie dog never suffered the threat of extinction and is prolific in both Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, as well as the prairie regions surrounding the hills.
Much of the wildlife of the Black Hills are not as easily viewed. Elk are shy animals and are only infrequently viewed without research. The elk is a majestic animal, with heavy, wide antlers. They can stand five feet at the shoulder and weigh over 1,000 pounds. Even in the briefest flash of a headlight, the sheer size of the elk makes its identity unmistakable. Other night animals include the region’s only large predator, the mountain lion. Other seldom-seen inhabitants of the hills include the flying squirrel, opossum, raccoon, weasel, mink, skunk, badger, fox, coyote, bobcat, and marmot.
The Black Hills are as far west as most Eastern birds travel, and as far east as most Western birds fly. As a result, you’ll want to bring your field guide to North America, or to the Great Plains, and forget packing guides to just Eastern or Western birds. Add to the mix the unique environment near the Nature Conservancy, south of Hot Springs, where a warm-water stream and a coldwater stream come together. It’s an unusual ecological combination that results in an interesting collection of birds, plants, and insects. Bird lists for the region include over 400 different bird species in South Dakota, most of which can be found in the Black Hills.
In the southern mixed-grass habitat, look for the sharp-tailed grouse, long-billed curlew, burrowing owl, and diminishing populations of sage grouse, sage thrasher, and brewer’s sparrow. The Badlands region hosts white-throated swifts and juniper groves are home to long-eared owls and mountain bluebirds. The ponderosa pine forests that dominate the Black Hills provide rich habitat for three-toed woodpeckers, ruby and golend crowned kinglets, and swainson’s thrushes. Waterside, the western tanager, black-headed grosbeak, lazuli bunting, and bullock’s oriole can be found.
The South Dakota Ornithologists Union has identified several birding “hot spots” in the Black Hills, including Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park; the Boles and Redbird Canyons, which are located near Jewel Cave; the Fort Meade Recreation Area; Canyon Lake in Rapid City; Hot Brook Canyon just outside of Hot Springs; Angostura Recreation Area, south of Hot Springs; Edgemont, with its sage-rich habitat; and Spearfish Canyon and Roughlock Falls in the Northern Hills.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Amphibians fall between fish and reptiles on the evolutionary scale and many have changed little from their ancestors that roamed the earth up to 270 million years ago. Cold-blooded amphibians, at the early stages of their development, live in water and breathe through gills. As they mature, amphibians will usually lose their gills and develop legs and many become terrestrial. Appropriately, the word “amphibian” means “double life.”
South Dakota has a total of 15 species of amphibians. Of these, just about half can be found in the Black Hills region, including two species of true frogs (the northern leopard frog and the bullfrog), two species of true toads (Great Plains toad and Woodhouse’s toad), one tree frog (the chorus frog), one spadefoot (the Plains spadefoot), and one salamander (the tiger salamander). While some amphibians are completely terrestrial, all of South Dakota’s amphibians must return to water to lay their eggs.
Reptiles are also cold blooded, but unlike amphibians have never had gills or breathed water in any stage of their development. Reptiles in the Black Hills include turtles, snakes, and lizards. Turtles have been with us since the Triassic period, dating back over 200 million years. In winter, all South Dakota turtles hibernate in burrows or in the mud underwater. There are seven species of turtle in South Dakota, of which four are found in the Black Hills region. These include the Western painted turtle, the snapping turtle, the spiny softshell turtle, and the smooth softshell turtle. Both of the softshell turtles are classified as rare. The snapping turtle is the largest, most aggressive, and common turtle in South Dakota, and can grow to over 40 pounds. It is not wise to try and pick one of these up. With sharp claws and strong jaws, a snapper can inflict a great deal of damage on ill-placed fingers. The Western painted turtle lives up to its name with a gorgeous red, orange, and yellow plastron (lower shell).
Ten different species of snake inhabit the Black Hills. The biggest snake in the region is the bull snake, which can range 37–72 inches in length. The Black Hills redbelly snake, once thought to be rare, may well be just super shy. A subspecies of the redbelly snake, it prefers high, moist elevations, like the conditions near Mount Rushmore and Harney Peak. The prairie rattlesnake is the only venomous snake in the Black Hills. A member of the pit viper family, the prairie rattler has a triangle-shaped head, with a pit on both sides of the head between the eye and nostril. Light brown in color, the snake is marked by dark oval blotches with light borders that become rings near the tail section. They range in length 30–40 inches and have a rattle on the tail. Remember that any snake with a pointed tail is not a rattlesnake. Also remember that snakes are secretive by nature, are not aggressive, and will leave you alone if you leave them alone, unless trapped or endangered in some way.
Insects and Arachnids
The Western black widow spider is one of the few venomous arachnids in the state, though it’s uncommon for people to be bitten by the spider. A reclusive spider, it is known for the bright-red hourglass shape on its lower abdomen.
In the early spring, the wood tick is one of South Dakota’s more annoying arachnids (ticks are not insects; they are closely related to spiders). The wood tick can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Colorado tick fever. The deer tick, which carries Lyme disease, is rare in South Dakota.
The insect posing the most problems in South Dakota is not a threat to the human population, but is a threat to the ponderosa pine forest that dominates the flora of the Black Hills. The mountain pine beetle has inhabited the Black Hills as long as there has been a pine forest here. The beetle population is cyclical. At times, the beetle is fairly rare, but every 10 years or so the beetle population increases and beetles attack healthy as well as stressed trees. These outbreaks last 5–13 years and then the population declines again. Since 1999, pine beetle infestation in the Black Hills has reached epidemic proportions due to a combination of many factors, including drought, fire suppression, and mild winters. You can see the effects of the beetle in the large number of rust-colored trees in the forest. Pine beetles will die out if subjected to extreme cold for several days in the midst of winter. Measures taken to prevent the spread of the pine beetle include thinning tree stands and prescribed burns. The area around Harney Peak includes the Elk Creek Wilderness and is an area that has high visitation. No logging or burning is allowed in the wilderness. Pine needle infestation near Harney Peak has prompted the Forest Service to take action. Logging in the area will be noticeable for quite some time.
South Dakota is home to over 100 fish species, and, of these, nearly 30 species are of interest to anglers. The mountain lakes and fast-moving streams of the Black Hills contain populations of walleye, salmon, bluegill, crappie, perch, bass, pike, trout, and catfish.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition