Black Hills Wildlife

Burros of Custer State Park

Burros of Custer State Park

As they came from domestic stock, some may not consider them “wild” life, the burro’s are perhaps Custer State Park’s most photographed animals.  Everyone loves having a donkey stick its head in their car, eat a carrot out of your hand, and leave behind a wad of slime.  

Bison or Buffalo?

South Dakota is home to some of the largest bison herds in the world.

Bison or buffalo in Wind Cave National Park

When we say buffalo, we usually mean American bison and tend to use the terms interchangeably. 

The American bison that make up the great buffalo herds of Custer State Park and Wind Cave are a sight to behold.  As the west was settled, we almost drove these animals to extinction, but now the Custer State Park buffalo herd is among the largest in the world.  The majestic power is something to watch and feel. 

Bring your camera and binoculars.  Don’t get too close, and don’t poke them.  Tourists have been seriously injured and killed by these critters.  Believe it or not those BIG dudes and dudetts can run over 35 miles per hour.  If they are crossing the road, they have the right away.  Every year people are hurt and have vehicles  damaged when they try to get too close to the bison herd or hurry them along by honking.  These wild buffalo are best viewed from a distance.  Especially during the spring calving season, you don’t want to find yourself between a  momma buffalo and her baby buffalo.

If you don’t find the herd while driving the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, you can arrange a jeep tour with the Custer State Park concession to view the buffalo herds in style.  If you visit the Black Hills during late September, be sure to check out the annual Buffalo Roundup.   Every year the herd is brought in for an annual check up, branding, vaccination, and since there is only so much room to roam out there in Custer State Park, some of the animals are auctioned off during the Buffalo Roundup Auction.  Visitors are welcome to watch the action as expert horse riders and park staff drive the herd into the buffalo corrals.   You will think you have gone back in time when you feel the pounding hooves, see the rising cloud of dust, and hear the wild buffalo coming over the hill.

During much of the summer you might very well find a solitary bull roaming the southern end of the Needles Highway.  Seeing these big guys among the pine trees of the Black Hills is one of my favorite things.  The big brown heads and huge brown eyes are a bit different than the cows we used to feed on my family’s Illinois farm.  South Dakota is one of the leading buffalo growing states.  Along with the Custer State Park herd, you can also view the Wind Cave National Park herd and there are many private herds as well. 

Mountain Goat in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Mountain Goats in the Black Hills of SD

Custer State Park Mountain Goats

The Black Hills mountain goat herd was started in the 1920’s when a group of daring goats staged an exciting escape from their pen in Custer State Park.  From the 6 animals that fled, the herd grew to over 300 at its largest, but it is suspected to now be at less than 100 animals.  Mountain goats have been brought in from Wilderness Areas in Colorado Utah and turned loose in the Black Hills in an effort to increase the genetic diversity of the heard. 

Mother mountain goat and her kid
Mother mountain goat and her kid.

These rock climbing animals are amazing to watch. I wish I had their power, grace and fearlessness.

Especially during birthing season in the spring, be careful to watch from a distance, as baby mountain goats can easily fall or be abandoned by their mothers if spooked by others climbing the rock around them.  Their climbing ability is their defense, and they get really nervous if you climb higher than them.  Rather competitive I must say. If you don’t see them in Custer State Park, they also like to hang out near the rocks of Mount Rushmore, and can often be seen from the road near the Washington Profile View pullout or on Black Elk Peak.

Black Hills Elk

Just like the giant bears that roamed the plains, by the time South Dakota became a state, Elk were extinct here.

The Elk now seen in South Dakota were reintroduced in the early 1900s.   It is amazing to me how such a large animal can jump so high and move so fast with such grace and speed.   They are among the largest animals in North America, and a healthy adult male can jump an 8 foot fence!  They range in the forest and the forest edges feeding on grass, leaves, and bark.  The males produce huge racks of antlers and use them for fighting with the other boys during mating season.  The ‘bugle’ sound they create during the fall mating season is an awesome and eerie sound that many people enjoy hearing, and seek out as part of their fall vacations.

Black Hills Bighorn Sheep

There are a few herds of bighorn sheep that roam the Black Hills.  You can see them just outside Hill City clear south to the southern portions of the Peter Norbeck scenic drive.  The big round horns on both the male and female sheep are something you don’t want to tangle with!  Leave the head butting to the rams during the spring when they are battling for dominance with the other tough guys in the herd.  Just like the buffalo, bighorn sheep are quite fast when they choose to be.

Bighorn sheep that were native to the Black Hills were driven to extinction by 1916 due to big game hunters.  To this day, bighorn sheep are one of the most sought after big game species hunted in north America.  In South Dakota alone over 1200 applications are filed for just a few hunting permits.  The Autobahn Bighorn Sheep seen today in the Black Hills were brought into Custer State Park from Colorado and Wyoming during the 1960’s and 1990’s.  In 2005 there was an outbreak of pneumonia that swept through the parks’ bighorn sheep in January and February and resulted in the death of up to 75 percent of herd.  Hunting was stopped for awhile, but the sheep that made it through are looking stronger than ever.  I’ve seen some huge rams tromping around the Black Hills.

bighorn sheep of South Dakota

Black Hills Mountain Lions

The mountain lion population here in South Dakota and across the western states seems to be growing.

I spent all summer almost every day out hiking in the Black Elk Wilderness as a Trail Crew Leader and Wilderness Ranger, and after 5 years I finally saw one. They are elusive, but they are here.  You don’t often see them, but they see you.  Seeing one is a fleeting moment that you will never forget.  A flash of cinnamon with a huge long tail.

According to the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks web page.  “Mountain lions are usually tawny to light cinnamon in color with black-tipped ears and tails.  Mountain lions vary in size and weight, with the males being larger than the females.  Adult males may be more than 8 feet in length, including the tail, and weigh an average of 150 pounds.  Adult females may be up to 7 feet in length and weigh an average of 90 pounds.  Bobcats, as a comparison, average 30 inches in length and weigh an average of 25 pounds.”

On a winter day from a high vantage point, Cheryl viewed a mother mountain lion and her two cubs goading a group of mountain goats perched up on a rock above them.  Talk about an awesome wildlife show!

We had a friend who did a study of mountain lions here in the Black Hills.  They are amazing creatures that we still have lots to learn about.  There is now an annual mountain lion hunting season here in South Dakota.  It is a lot of work, but many people do find it exciting to hunt mountain lions. 

mountain lion of South Dakota

Birds in the Black Hills

Black Hills Birds– Raptors, jays, woodpeckers and more can all be found hiking through the trees and up the trails of Custer State Park.  I love to watch the osprey fishing in Sylvan Lake.  Stop by the Black Hills National Forest office and pick up a checklist of area birds, grab your binoculars and head out.  If you slow down, and watch, you will be amazed at the wild life around you.  Little critters are everywhere.  To really see birds and animals getting up early in the morning helps too.

Sharp-tailed grouse doing spring mating dance
Sharp-tailed grouse doing spring mating dance.

We once had the opportunity to view the spring mating dance of the sharp-tailed grouse in Custer State Park.  Go do it if you ever have the chance!  Watching the males face-off and march about is a sight to remember.

Here is a checklist of South Dakota Birds both in and out of the Black Hills (South Dakota Ornithologist).  If you want to really know more, get the book.

he SD State bird site is a great resource as well

Here is a list of the bird species you might find in the Black Hills  CLICK HERE

Turkey in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Turkey in the Black Hills of SD

Did you say Black Hills turkey?  Yes, I suppose it is a bird, but seems like the Merriam’s turkey needs its own space.  They are also an introduced species said to have come from New Mexico and “helped” here in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

People say that seeing turkey is a rare thing, but living here in the Black Hills I see them almost every day.  I see them in Custer State Park, I see them in my yard, I see them all over the Black Hills National forest…Maybe they are following me. 

If you go on a hike up Black Elk Peak or drive Needles Highway and the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway I bet you’ll see a turkey as well (and I’m not just talking about the dude driving 4MPH who won’t pull over).
Thousands of hunters swarm the black hills during the spring and fall turkey hunting seasons.  If you are on your SD vacation during the summer you can stalk the wily turkey with your camera.  In the spring it’s great fun to see the male turkeys strutting their stuff with all their feathers fanned out trying to impress the girls.  The feather show is beautiful, but have you ever looked at a turkey’s head up close? It is all blue and red…darned ugly if you ask me, but I’m not a female turkey.  The Lakota Indians used turkey feathers to decorate their ceremonial headdresses.