Big News in Prairie Dog Town
Southwest South Dakota
Several endangered species have been reintroduced to the Badlands-bighorn
sheep, shaggy bison, the swift fox, black-faced ferrets-but invasive plant species continue to threaten this extreme landscape.
The Badlands aren’t so bad, really-just misunderstood. This windswept, treeless plain, carved by erosion into jagged spires and buttes and deep-gouged canyons, must have been hell for the early Sioux Indians and French-Canadian trappers to traverse; no wonder they slapped a disparaging moniker on it. But precisely because the land was impossible to farm, today it’s the country’s largest surviving stand of mixed-grass prairie, a complex tapestry of nearly 50 different kinds of grasses, from the tall big bluestem to the short buffalo grass, along with a summertime profusion of wildflowers.
Where you’ve got prairie, you ought to have prairie dogs, of course. For close-up views, follow Sage Creek Rim Road along the northern edge of the park to Roberts Prairie Dog Town, a 300-acre (121-hectare) complex of burrows set up for observation. Along with some 6,000 black-tailed prairie dogs, you may see another rare prairie dweller: the black-footed ferret, with its long weasel body and raccoonlike face. Said to be the most endangered mammal in North America, the blackfooted ferret was actually ruled extinct in 1979, until a few survivors were discovered in Wyoming. Biologists bred the last 18 of them in captivity, then reintroduced 36 captive-bred ferrets here in 1995. It’s now estimated that there are 250 in the park and surrounding areas. With so little prairie habitat left, this is one of the last places this native ferret can thrive-especially since its main food is prairie dogs, another rapidly waning species.
Drive the park’s 30-mile (48km) Loop Road along the Badlands wall, a massed series of spires and ridges that rise abruptly from the prairie floor, where pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and shaggy bison graze; bighorn sheep can be spotted on the rocky slopes. Or venture off the road on foot, along the gently rolling Medicine Root Loop, a 4-mile (6.4km) hiking trail where you can distinguish the different grasses of this prairie ecosystem. Unfortunately, park management must constantly fight the spread of non-native plants, such as Canada thistle, exotic grasses, and knapweed, inadvertently brought in by human visitors.
There are a few bad things about the Badlands. You can’t drink the water; it’s too full of sediment. Those buttes are tricky to climb, with their loose, crumbly rocks. The parkland can be blistering hot in summer, prone to heavy rainstorms and lightning; punishing blizzards roll through in winter. And it is a long drive from almost everywhere. But remoteness has its virtues: So long as there’s prairie, we’ll still have bison, prairie dogs, and, once more, ferrets.
Badlands National Park, SD 240 at Cedar Pass (& 605/433-5361; www.nps. gov/badl) Rapid City
Cedar Pass Lodge, Badlands National Park (& 877/386-4383 or 605/433-5460, mid-Mar to mid-Oct; www. cedarpasslodge.com). $ Badlands Ranch and Resort, 20910 Craven Rd., Interior, SD (& 877/433-5599 or 605/433-5599; www.badlandsranchandresort. com)