The Badlands are home to several kinds of herd animals. Mule deer are by far the most common animal to see on a drive through the park, but some visitors may also see white-tailed deer. Visitors should keep their eyes peeled for three less common animals of the Plains: bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn.
Inaccurately called “antelope,” pronghorn is actually the lone surviving member of a family of its own. It is truly a North American animal: its ancestors originated and remained here, unlike most other North American mammals which crossed the Bering Land Bridge or traveled up from South America. Pronghorn are incredibly quick, having been clocked at over 50 miles per hour and maintaining that speed for up to five miles. Their coloration is an adaptation to help them blend into the open prairie.
The bighorns of the Badlands were absent from the view for nearly forty years. The last known bighorn was shot in the South Unit in 1926. In 1964, the park reintroduced sheep in the Pinnacles area and the Sheep Mountain area. In 1996, sheep were relocated from those areas to the Cedar Pass area near park headquarters. Today, your best chances to see these elusive animals are along the Door Trail or Cliff Shelf Nature Trail or at the Pinnacles Overlook. Outstanding climbers and scramblers, bighorn thrive in the steep rocky terrain of the Badlands buttes.
There is no animal more closely linked with America than the bison. Native to the Badlands, bison were gone from this landscape by the 1880s. In 1963, bison were reintroduced into the Sage Creek basin. Due to a fear of the disease brucellosis, Badlands bison are not a free-ranging herd. They are contained within 64,000 acres to keep them from mingling with surrounding cattle herds. (Note: no Badlands bison have ever tested positive for brucellosis, a disease that causes the death of calves during the birth process.) Although their true name is bison, these creatures are more commonly called buffalo, an Anglicized version of the French word for “beef.” To see bison, you must travel the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road.
Bison were once the large dominant plant grazers in the grassland ecosystem of the northern Great Plains. Now, appreciative visitors use up a lot of film when they are lucky enough to see them in the Badlands National Park. The 600 head animal herd lives in the Sage Creek wilderness area of the park, and small groups of them can often be seen while driving along the Sage Creek Rim Road, searching with binoculars from the Pinnacles Overlook, or hiking in the Sage Creek Unit.
No longer free to roam millions of acres of prairie, the Badlands bison are kept within the boundaries of the park to prevent trespass onto surrounding private and public grazing lands. This also separates them from their once infinite lunch bucket of grass and deprives them of a cool beverage from the waters of the White and Cheyenne Rivers. Predators like the wolf and grizzly bear, which once culled the bison herds are no longer allowed to live in this part of the country. Now, it is the responsibility of the park to periodically remove some of the bison, so their numbers do not increase beyond the capacity of the area to support them. Follow this link for an interesting article from the National Park Service about the 2007 bison round up.
It is important to have semi-free roaming bison at the Badlands so that their influence on the grassland is expressed on the landscape, helping to define the type and distribution of plant communities here. For many, viewing bison in the natural setting of Badlands National Park arouses special feelings about time, place, and our relationship with the natural world. This magnificent animal, along with all of our wildlife heritage, serves as a reminder of our individual and collective responsibility to protect and preserve what we have for all time.
For a list of other mammals species that make Badlands their home follow this link.