There are images in the American psyche that are as iconic as apple pie and baseball. The image of a plains indian in the throws of a bison hunt and the image of the Great Plains homesteader squinting their eyes in a sunny hundred mile stare bracing themselves against the unfettered prairie winds. These images are as gone as the prairie itself. As to why things are the way they are here in central United States is as complex as the history is deep. Our short visit to and through the landscapes of the grasslands that remain could not do it justice in this format. I will say that in the face of all that is ecologically and politically wrong magical moments can still happen. I want to share two such moments.
In Sheyenne National Grasslands in the south east corner of North Dakota on an eight mile loop trail around the oak savannah of Hankinson Hills the sight of about ten white pelicans in their typical v formation caught our attention. Being the large and strong winged birds they are we could hear the movement of the air as they went overhead. Just about the time the squadron passed us they began to break formation and swirl and dance up through the air. “What are they doing?”, I whispered. While it’s common for pelicans to ride the thermals I had never seen this before and something about the beauty of these large birds gliding above made me gulp back tears.
After Sheyenne we headed to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. There is the iconic badlands to drive and hike through but there is also the wilderness area to the west and two other units that are within the Pine Ridge reservation to the south. Surrounding much of the park otherwise is the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. I’ve wanted to visit Badlands ever since I saw a picture of the colorful sandstone hills that give them their name. The beauty of the colors in the rocks did not disappoint but what I really fell in love with was found west of that rugged terrain in the Sage Creek Wilderness area of the park. Life’s a bit more green over there this time of year. Within the park one is free to wander about as they wish (just bring in all your own water). After a stormy afternoon and morning watching the male Bison roam about the campground area munching grass the sky calmed and we set out on a walkabout to see what we could see. We set out in an “as the crow flies” fashion for some hills in the distance that looked to have some promising views. We quickly learned that this land belies not just it’s true topography but it’s filled with life. As we walked crickets jumped away from our feet the way water moves in a stream as you cross it, a grasshopper trying to avoid us managed to jump right into Tim with loud thwap, while avoiding bison chips we also did our best to avoid crushing all the wildflowers. When we found ourselves looking 20 feet down to the stream below we decided to try going up the hill this time since downhill last time had us crossing a few streams. As we walked up to the bend in the creek we saw a porcupine that seemed to also be out enjoying the finally shining sun resting on a fallen tree trunk up above the stream. In his very porcupine fashion he moved himself up into the protection of the cottonwood leaves, even though this technically brought him closer to where we stood.
Moving on we saw both a kingfisher and a red headed woodpecker bouncing from tree to tree along another stream. As we walked closer to our destination we thought perhaps we might fair better by following in the bison trails instead of forging our own path. After all they’ve know this landscape for thousands of years, it’s in their DNA. This took us up and over the first hill and brought us down by a group of bachelor bison and one, very large, loner. We did our best to walk between without disturbing them as we headed towards yet another stream. There we looked across the stream to see a pair of pronghorn. At first startled to see us they quickly went about their business of eating and scratching their heads on the shrubs. Very near our desired destination we went up and over the next hill. As we came up though we found ourselves looking at a few more bison, only these were ladies that were part of the maternal herd. Even though we were a good distance away they rose in alarm. This alarmed the mama on the other side of them who looked at us over hill she was on. Up her tail went. We backed up a bit but the motions we accidentally set into to play could not be stopped. With all the ladies nearby on alert a calf wondering what the fuss was about looked over the hill at us too. We briefly saw the light brown face before mama and crew decided it was time to move on. This movement set off all the ladies and calves below them and they took off in trot to higher land. Like dominoes all the females and calves not waiting to see where the danger was took off as well. We watched and heard the ground rumble as somewhere around a couple hundred females and calves tromped their way to higher ground and away from us. On the one hand I felt guilty for having disturbed their peace, on the other this sight and everything that came with it was something of a miracle. Fifty years ago there were no bison in Badlands National Park and over a hundred years before that Americans had slaughtered an estimated 30 million bison down to just a few hundred. This incredible beast would have been gone completely from the world had it not been for a few people who thought to save them from extinction and a few that kept themselves hidden in the wilds of Yellowstone.
What was once the Great Plains are now fractured, stressed, abused and incomplete grasslands spread out across the states, yet there is still life there and if you open yourself to the place it might just surprise you. Just be careful if you follow a bison trail, they’ve got big hooves to follow and you might end up seeing more than you bargained.