The bull bison stands up, turns and looks directly at us. “Crap,” I think. In this narrow canyon, how are we going to get around him? There’s a bit more room on the uphill side, but we’re totally exposed if he charges. The downhill side is closer to the bull, hemmed in by a rock cliff, and choked with thigh-high poison ivy and huckleberry. I whisper to my wife, Debra: “Let’s cut over to the cliff and see if we can scoot by him. If he charges, drop your backpack and scramble up the cliff any way you can.”
We’re backpacking in Wind Cave National Park, situated on the southern edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills, where ponderosa pines meet mixed grass prairie – the intersection of the eastern tallgrass prairie with the western shortgrass prairie. With an estimated 99% reduction in tallgrass prairie and 75% reduction in shortgrass prairie, the park’s sizable remnant prairie offers one of the few places where a visitor can get a sense of what the once-great expansive prairie must have been like.
We hug the rocky cliff. Not far ahead, I see an intersecting small canyon. I feel a tinge of relief, hoping this will allow us to quickly put more distance between us and the bull. Suddenly, the bull drops to the ground, rolls, springs back up and swings his head violently, sending a large plume of dust into the air. Debra and I lock eyes. We both know what this means. The bull has fired a warning shot; a charge could be imminent.
“There’s no going back now;” please give us a few more steps Mr. Bull. Fortunately, seconds later, we make it to the intersecting canyon, and quickly leave the grumpy bull to himself.
Mr. Cantankerous was the first of hundreds of bison encounters we experienced backpacking through the canyons, ponderosa pine savannas, and open prairies of Wind Cave. The presence of these mega-mega fauna electrified our senses and amplified our human fragility. Traveling safely mandated a delicate visual balance between avoiding ankle-deep bison patties and spotting dark forms lurking ahead. These animals radiate strength and power, and their presence detoured us dozens of time. Back when the bison ruled the prairie, their massive herds must have delayed human travelers for days.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), there were an estimated 30- to 60-million bison living in North America. With the arrival of Euro-Americans in the 1700s, wild bison numbers fell to roughly 325 by 1884. In the 1870s, many people captured free-ranging bison to establish private herds for profit. In 1905, the American Bison Society was founded by private citizens to protect and restore bison. In 1913, Wind Cave National Park received 13 bison from the New York Zoological Society. Today, they are an estimated 250 – 400 animals.
While the bison is an iconic species of the prairie, there’s another keystone mammal - the black-tailed prairie dog - that’s equally important in maintaining the prairie’s biodiversity. A casual stroll through a prairie dog town is best described as “charming entertainment.” The little guys bark, scramble, scurry and stare at us when we travel through their towns. My favorite prairie dog antic is the game of backpacker chicken. The winner of this sporting event is the prairie dog that holds out the longest before retreating into its hole as we approach.
Suffering a similar fate as the bison, prairie dogs have faced steep declines from poisoning, Sylvatic plague (bubonic plaque bacterium), recreational shooting and habitat loss. According to the USFWS, range-wide estimates of original black-tailed prairie dog habitat was 80- to 100-million acres. Current populated habitat is estimated at 2.1 million acres.
Dozens of other animals use prairie dog burrows, such as burrowing owls, prairie rattlesnakes, and one we most wanted to see - the black-footed ferret. Known as the “prairie dog hunter,” these masked, nocturnal, subterranean predators are totally dependent on prairie dogs for food and shelter.
According to the USFWS, the black-footed ferret remains one of the most endangered mammals in North America, primarily due to disease, loss of habitat, and related declines in prey. In addition, conversion of native grasslands to agricultural land, widespread prairie dog eradication programs, and fatal, non-native diseases, such as the Sylvatic plague, have reduced ferret populations to less than 2% of their original range. Much of the remaining habitat is now fragmented, with prairie dog towns separated by expanses of agricultural land and other human developments.
Black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, but due to a combination of human-induced threats, they were believed to be extinct twice in the 20th century. In 1981, a small population of the species was rediscovered in Meeteetse, Wyo. By 1986, due to the Sylvatic plaque, only 18 individuals were known to exist in this isolated wild population. Scientists captured these remaining ferrets, developed a vaccine for the plague, and the small population became the foundation for a successful captive breeding and reintroduction program (http://blackfootedferret.org/) that continues today. In 2007, black-footed ferrets were reintroduced into Wind Cave National Park. An estimated 50 are believed to live in the park today.
We hit the trail early on our last day. The full moon fades in the western sky as the sun rises in the east. An elk bugles nearby followed by the clanging rattle of antler hitting antler. I smile, a farewell message from a couple of the resident “elk boys” we’ve come to know during our stay. With the musky smell of bison hanging in the cool predawn air, we silently travel in the reverse direction of the same canyon we passed through days earlier.
We pass by marbleseed, leadplant, prairie clover, blazing star, coneflower, little bluestem, big bluestem, prairie violets, sideoats grama, white sage, prickly pear cactus, stiff goldenrod, hairy golden aster, needle-and-thread grass, blue grama and many other once-common iconic prairie plants. Prairie dogs stretching skyward on their hind legs bark goodbye as we pass. A pronghorn buck nervously watches us from a distance. A lone bison grazes uncaringly along the creek.
My legs are hard now, no longer burdened by the load they carry and eager to cover distance. My stomach flat, a pinch of belly fat no longer lapping over my waist belt. My time in this park has left me humbled, stronger and grateful for the opportunity to experience our mixed grass prairie natural heritage. An experience that would not have been possible without the dedication of caring people from all walks of life.
To our government, private citizens, conservations organizations and the host of others that made Wind Cave National Park, the People’s Park, a reality, I thank you. Your conservation efforts are what truly make this country great!