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Badlands National Park

Bleak & Beautiful Bluffs

To the Lakota, it was called mako spica. To the French trappers, it was called les mauvaises terres à traverser . Both translated to “bad lands.” But the good and the bad of this land is all relative. To early homesteaders, the dramatic swings between sweltering summers and wicked winters made even sustenance farming unsustainable. But to a paleontologist with a chisel or a visitor with a camera and hiking boots, it might as well be heaven.

Fossils From An Ancient Sea Bed

The badlands were under water during the Jurassic period but that doesn’t mean that the badlands do not preserve a rich variety of fossils. Early sea life such as Baculites and mosasaurs are still discovered by eagle eyed tourists. An inch of the badlands formations is worn away each year. And while that means the Badlands are unlikely to last the next 500,000 years, it means that new fossils are uncovered with each rainfall, most of which are discovered by tourists. Where rainstorms usually spoil a trip, a badlands deluge may be all that stands between any of us discovering a massive Archeotherium (the modern pigs creepy older relative) and the three toed ancestor of modern horses, the Mesohippus.

The Badlands may be best known for awesome rock formations, but the National Park also encompasses extensive prairie where prairie dogs, the black weasel, big horn sheep, buffalo, and other animals thrive.

A viewing room has been set up in the Badlands Visitors Center to watch recently uncovered fossils be painstakingly cleaned and prepared.

A viewing room has been set up in the Badlands Visitors Center to watch recently uncovered fossils be painstakingly cleaned and prepared.

The Badlands’ Buttes

Of course, the delicate spires and pink bands of sediment that mark fossil rich earth also draws devoted photographers. Like a wet stone to a knife, the rain and wind constantly cut away at the peaks of these delicate sedimentary buttes, shaving away the edges to sharp and dramatic points. Each phase of the day highlights different and rich colors.

The brilliant rosy bands of the Badlands Buttes.

Prairie Dogs, Bison, and…Ferrets?

It may be easy to be distracted by the breathtaking buttes of the Badlands but that should not deter from the sprawling prairie, home to prairie dogs, bison, big horn sheep, and the black-footed ferret. There are several prairie dog towns across the park and the communal fellows are just as curious to stare at tourists as the tourists are to stare at them so long as it is from a distance. Bison are a common site: big dark dots among the golden prairie. They have even been known to wander into camping sites at night. Big horn sheep have also been reintroduced to the park and will sometimes be grazing next to the road. While, they all have collars so that rangers can monitor their positions, the goats remain quite wild.

Buffalo cluster around worn down posts to scratch themselves against the hard wood.

Bighorn sheep grazing along a cliff. Bighorn were only recently reintroduced to the Badlands. While they do wear collars, they are wild. The collars contain GPS tracking equipment so that the park can monitor the success of these animals.

The Black-Footed Ferret

The black-footed ferret was declared to be extinct in 1979. It wasn’t. This prairie dog hunting American polecat’s numbers had dwindled along with the prairie dogs. Yet, in 1981, a dutiful dog in Meeteetse, Wyoming brought a black-footed ferret to its owners door. While that ferret was dead, people were able to find the small community where it came lived. Thanks to a captive breading program, there are now 1,000 mature black-footed ferrets in the wild. The Badlands are home to one of only four self sustaining populations of black-footed ferret. No, we didn’t see any. They are nocturnal and live in prairie dog burrows.