Badlands National Park: Bighorn Sheep and Prairie Dogs

Bighorn Sheep

After my bison encounter and after a breakfast of Mountain House Breakfast Skillet (more on this later), we set off for a morning drive on the Badlands Loop Road east to the visitor center and Cedar Pass.

The first twelve miles of the road were unpaved and were a retread of the route we’d driven in on the previous afternoon to get to Sage Creek Campground. These miles were also thick with wildlife, being both less traveled and adjacent to the largest expanse of wilderness. In addition to the plentiful bison, we spotted another pronghorn.

And then we stopped at Roberts Prairie Dog Town.

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog
Prairie, both in the park and in the surrounding Buffalo Gap National Grassland, recedes north to the horizon beyond the Prairie Dog Town.
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog

Prairie Dogs, which are large ground squirrels, are extremely social, establishing complex burrow systems called Prairie Dog Towns, with individual neighborhoods called coteries. The prairie dogs spend much of their waking hours out of their burrows feeding and watching for predators. They were beginning to get zaftig for the winter. Although they do not hibernate, their metabolisms slow down and they feed far less frequently in the winter months, sometimes sleeping for several days.

Beyond the Prairie Dog Town on this cloudless morning, we could see the Black Hills looming to the west above the prairie. The easternmost extension of the Rocky Mountains, they were our next destination. And there they were, beckoning.

The Black Hills
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog scat at the entrance to a burrow
Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs

In addition to the clicking of my camera’s shutter, you can hear the yipping of the prairie dogs in the video below:

Video: Sean M. Santos

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog

After the Prairie Dog Town, the road invited us on toward a perfect morning. To all my National Park adventuring friends, I wish a road and a morning like this be ahead of you always.

Our second stop was the Badlands Wilderness Overlook, which afforded spectacular southerly views of the Sage Creek Wilderness area. (Note the three circling birds, likely Turkey Vultures, just right of center and less than a quarter length above the horizon in the image below.)

Badlands Wilderness Overlook
Badlands Wilderness Overlook

Below is a photograph highly illustrative of where we were. Sean stands at the far right on the edge of mixed grass prairie. Behind him, the prairie stretches north through South Dakota and North Dakota, north into Saskatchewan and eventually to the boreal forest.

In front of Sean is the drop-off of the Badlands Wall, some four hundred feet down to the southern extension of the plains, past the Badlands, past Pine Ridge Reservation, and then south through Nebraska and Colorado and Oklahoma and northern Texas.

A quarter of the way into the right of the image’s frame is the park road, dirt in this western extension, running along the crest of the Wall.

Badlands Wilderness Overlook
Badlands Wilderness Overlook

Beneath the overlook, on an outcrop accessible by a well-trodden social path, an artist couple sat and interpreted the scenery.

Badlands Wilderness Overlook

Video: Brandon Hayes

Bighorn Sheep scat
Rubber Rabbitbrush
Curlycup Gumweed

We continued down the road until we reached the Hay Butte Overlook. Across the expanse of Sage Creek Wilderness’s frontier with the Wall, Hay Butte (the longest butte in the distance at left) stood out, topped by an island of prairie in a sea of badlands.

Hay Butte Overlook
Hay Butte Overlook

At this overlook we talked with an older couple in an RV who noticed that our car’s license plate was registered in Polk County, Iowa, which is where they were from. We explained that it was a rental. The husband was concerned about going further down the Sage Creek Road because it was bumpy, and he didn’t want the connection to their refrigerator to come loose. I could tell that the wife really wanted to keep going, though. Also at this overlook, we said hello to a French couple and a man traveling alone who asked if I’d take his picture. We’d also meet a German couple and overhear people speaking Italian in the park.

Hay Butte Overlook

A few twists of the road past Hay Butte Overlook, and near the junction with the paved park road, we spotted Bighorn Sheep relaxing on the wall below. We quickly pulled over and jumped out to get a better look. (In the image below, one of the males is directly down the slope from where I’m standing. Another male, the one in the next image, is just beyond on the next slope. The mother and baby are paired on the first ledge beneath the lip on the further slope. I don’t think I’d noticed them yet when Sean snapped this image.)

Image: Sean M. Santos
Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn Sheep

There were about a dozen resting on ledges below us. (Note that two in the image below have radio collars.) We had only been in the park (awake) a short while, and already we’d seen an array of wildlife at close range and experienced some ridiculously gorgeous vistas. Now it was time to travel the park road in earnest.

Bighorn Sheep

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