Expect lots of close encounters of the “wild” kind when you visit the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. Whether it’s a “buffalo jam” in Custer State Park, prairie dog towns along the way or a mountain goat grazing in Spearfish Canyon, you’re in for a treat. The Black Hills and Badlands are rich with native wildlife. Impromptu, close-up encounters with animals of the northern plains and mountains provide many vacation memories.
Playful Donkey in Custer State Park Prime wildlife viewing. To view and photograph prime wildlife visit Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and Badlands National Park. The wild animals are everywhere, wild and free.
Badlands National Park
Is a primary reintroduction site of the endangered black-footed ferret, with over 50 ferrets now finding permanent residence in Badlands' prairie dog town.
Big Horn Sheep in the Black Hills
Many animals — black-tailed prairie dogs, mule deer, pronghorn (commonly call antelope), bison, coyotes, and bighorn sheep — adapt to, and even thrive under the conditions in Badlands National Park.
Wind Cave National Park
Visitors can explore two worlds at nearby Wind Cave National Park: 114 miles of known underground passages and 28,295 Big Horn Sheep roam the Black Hills acres of above-ground wilderness and wildlife that serve as home to native wildlife such as bison, elk, pronghorn, mule, deer, coyotes and prairie dogs.
On the prairies look for bison, mule deer, antelope, prairie dogs, eagles, turkey vultures, coyotes, badgers, foxes, prairie
chickens, grouse and jack rabbits.
The Pine Forests
Home to deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, turkeys, marmots (woodchucks), squirrels, cottontails, mink, muskrats and beavers. Mountain lion sightings are becoming more prevalent. Campground visitors commonly include chipmunks, pine squirrels, jays and sometimes raccoons. It’s the usual thing — not really a special moment — to find bison grazing the lawns at the Game Lodge or Norbeck Visitor Center in Custer State Park. Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep routinely stop cars near park headquarters there, too.
The little things are bold … close-up photos are easy. And if you get caught in a “buffalo jam,” just relax and enjoy the spectacle of hundreds of bison crossing the highway and blocking traffic. Eventually, they’ll move.Elk at Play in the Black Hills
Nearly 1,600 buffalo, one of the largest herds anywhere, roam free in the foothills of Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres. The Wildlife Loop Road winds through the prime buffalo range in the southeastern part of the Park. Approximately 450 bison make their home in the Badlands Wilderness area of Sage Creek. You’ll also see Bighorn sheep in the more mountainous areas of the park, although their numbers are significantly less.
Things are just the opposite when the Custer State Park’s wild burros find you. These panhandling jackasses are perpetually hungry! While one of them blocks traffic, his buddies conduct a car-to-car search, hoping for some cookies or crackers to eat.
Include lithe whitetail deer, handsome pronghorn antelope, snow-white mountain goats and reclusive elk. Whether you’re a casual sightseer or a serious nature photographer, the critters of Custer State Park put on quite a show. Most wildlife can easily be seen from your car. However, to truly experience the Park, get out and walk some of the nation’s most scenic hiking trails. There are 11 of them in the Park.
With more than 200 species of birds common to the Black Hills and Badlands, birders can glimpse birds native to western plains and mountains. The Black Hills is also home to more than 20 rare or endangered species, and it is a meeting ground for many eastern and western species.
Some of the best places to enjoy birding are in the national and state parks, such as Bear Butte State Park near Sturgis, Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs, Custer State Park, the Badlands, or Spearfish Canyon. A bird watching guide for South Dakota State Parks and Recreation Areas is available and can be picked up at many of the state parks.
Western South Dakota is a good place to spot some of the great raptors: bald eagles, golden eagles, turkey vultures, prairie falcons, and many types of hawks and owls. You may want to keep a checklist of your bird spottings.
Visiting birders seem to take special delight in finding our local mountain bluebirds, blackbilled magpies, fearless little nuthatches, busy water ouzels, flamboyant Western tanagers, or impudent jays.
Because this country is semi-arid, we don’t have a lot of waterfowl. An exception is Rapid City’s Canyon Lake, where more than 30 species of waterfowl have been observed. From wild turkeys to tiny wrens, the changing seasons bring new species of visiting and resident birds.
The South Dakota Ornithologists' Union is dedicated to increasing knowledge about bird life in South Dakota by publishing a quarterly journal and several books.