As arid as they may look, Badlands are full of life, especially when I strayed away from the touristic areas. There are dozens of different mammal species living in the park and a couple hundred bird species. Apart from the red-winged black bird and an American robin that I found in abundance everywhere on my trip, I saw goldfinches, swallows, magpies, chickadees, brewer’s blackbirds, orioles (at least I thought so) and several more I couldn’t identify. I saw the beautiful Western Meadowlark and heard its song, and early in the morning a group of large wild turkeys slowly crossed my path and disappeared into the bushes.
As I mentioned before, Sage Creek campground is one of the bison’s favorite spots. Returning to the campground in the evening I found a herd of bison right in the middle of it. For some reason they favored my tent, surrounded it and stayed to graze and socialize for an hour or so. They stirred up the ground so much that my tent became a small dry island in a lake of mud.
It was a touching experience to be around wild animals at such short distance. Massive and gracious, the bison tended to their business, and after a while I started noticing patterns in their daily relocations. At a closer glance both bison and the bighorn sheep (which are also quite abundant in the park), seemed somewhat ungroomed, with patchy, dirty fur. It took me a while to realize that it is the shedding season rather than consequences of a tough winter.
It’s amazing to imagine that prior to the western colonization around 30 million bison roamed the land between the Appalachians and the Rockies. In the late 1800’s their population was almost entirely eliminated, and after more than a hundred years of conservation attempts, it has rebounded to about 1% of its original size. Today South Dakota has the largest bison population in the country. Some of the herds (such as the herds in Badlands and Custer State Park) are publicly owned, others are tribe- and privately-owned. Since the 1960’s Custer State Park has an annual bison roundup and auction, selling several hundred bison per year for profit and herd-size control. This public and loud entertainment event is apparently very different from the way such roundups happen at Badlands, where they are conducted quietly and privately. The bison are measured, vaccinated, and their blood is taken for tests, but only the ones that can be easily gathered, without stressing out the animals. (link)
The visitor center has a nice geology and paleontology display. I enjoyed imagining the animals that lived in here at different periods of time. During the age of the dinosaurs a shallow sea covered the area, thus no dinosaur fossils were found here. However at that time large marine lizards Mososaurs lived in the sea and winged Pteranodons swooped through the air above it.
Many many other fascinating creatures lived and died here, and it was interesting to follow some of the evolutional pathways and see the fossils of the predecessors of species we know today. Two of my favorites were the Titanothere and the tiny predecessor of a horse: Hyracotherium. Trying to imagine these prehistoric animals and the time-scale on which they existed, makes me think of a possible time in the future when remains and models of human bodies will be exhibited in natural history museums and odd looking creatures will be conducting tours, teaching their youth about species long-gone.
Later that evening while waiting for the bison to move away from my tent I went on a prairie stroll nearby. Surrounded by loud chirping I look around for the birds. The only trees are far in the distance and no birds are in the air. Then I realize that I’m walking on top of a Prairie Dog Town! The land was covered with burrows and the prairie dogs were conversing with each other from within them. When I returned to the campsite, the bison were still there. I found this ground dog watching the bison and shrieking, either at them, or as a watchman shouting warnings to his friends.
It was cloudy and windy most of the day, but the rain had paused, so I enjoyed my walks and had a chance to make some landscape and animal sketches. Around dusk-time a clearing opened in the clouds letting in the rays of the setting sun, suddenly painting the landscape in wild colors. This was a beautiful parting gift for me. At nightfall from my tent I listened to coyotes howling and an owl hooting.