Wildlife Management - Raising Wildlife
When Wind Cave was set aside as a national park in 1903 little more than eight miles of cave were known. It was a quiet place in western South Dakota where unique cave formations dazzled visitors and geologists alike.
The surface world - a mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine forest - gathered little attention. The vast prairie of the Great Plains was an ecosystem to conquer - an action needed to make way for farms and ranches. As this conquest transpired, habitats for thousands of different organisms disappeared; gone were the bison, elk, and pronghorn antelope that once roamed the land. The disappearance that gained the most discussion was the demise of the bison. These magnificent animals were being wantonly slaughtered.
In response to the carnage, and in an effort to reestablish free-ranging bison herds throughout the country, Teddy Roosevelt and William Hornaday created the American Bison Society. As the Society looked for suitable homes for these animals, they noticed the prairie of Wind Cave National Park. Within the park was a mixture of wide open prairie and small forested areas - habitats perfect for the reintroduction of vanishing prairie species. In August 1912 Congress established the Wind Cave National Game Preserve for the purpose of reintroducing bison and other wildlife threatened by changes occurring on the Great Plains.
Returning the Animals
Fourteen bison were shipped to the preserve from the New York Zoological Society in 1913. In 1914, 14 Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park and 13 pronghorn antelope from Alberta, Canada were added to complete the prairie scene. Wind Cave National Park was on its way to becoming a home for prairie wildlife.
Learning to Manage Wildlife
Because the practice of raising wild game animals under semi-natural conditions was relatively new, A.P. Chambers, the first warden of the preserve, experienced many challenges creating healthy, wild herds.
The bison and elk survived with very little trouble. They quickly adapted to the park area and by 1920, the bison reached a population of 100 and the elk, 200. To keep the herd sizes in balance with the range, managers culled animals by selling them or moving them to other preserves.
Challenges with the Pronghorn
Raising pronghorn antelope was one of A.P Chambers greatest challenges. These curious little animals seemed to die for no apparent reason. Chambers kept the captive pronghorn in small enclosures and fed them ground corn and alfalfa. The food apparently disagreed with them since he reported three had died of indigestion.
Wild pronghorn, according to biologist Fred Dille in 1913 "are crazy to handle. So the wise heads of the Biological Survey figured it was best to capture the kids when first born and rear them. This was successful except they were too tame and not afraid of any dog or man." It's easy to see that Chambers would have trouble from predators.
In 1918 coyotes were such a nuisance that a federal trapper was brought in to rid the preserve of them. Between 1912 and 1921, 598 predators were killed. Still, by 1924, the herd was down to only seven does. At that time a pronghorn buck was brought in from Nevada and the herd began to grow again.
In 1935, the preserve and Wind Cave National Park merged. Soon the Civilian Conservation Corps removed interior fences to create an 11,000 acre range. The new space seemed to have an effect on the pronghorn, "It was interesting to watch the antelope the first day they found they could get on the new range… They covered the entire east range in a comparatively short time, running in all directions…"
Looking to the Future
In 1935, when the park and the preserve merged, care of the animals was given to Wildlife Ranger Estes Sutter. Sutter was interested in creating a herd that looked and behaved like bison of the "old days". He worked with Native American elders and locals to determine what a "true buffalo" really looked like and culled the herd to achieve that goal.
NPS Photo by Tom Farrell
One Hundred Years and Still Going
In 2007, Wind Cave National Park continued its role as a place that reestablished native species to the Great Plains. Forty-nine black-footed ferrets were reintroduced to the park's prairie dog towns with more added in 2010. The presence of this remarkable predator helps restore balance to the prairie ecosystem and provides an opportunity for visitors from around the world to see a rare and elusive animal on the prairies of Wind Cave National Park.
For more information about the return of the wildlife to Wind Cave National Park select from the listings below:
Did You Know?
Wind Cave is the first cave in the world to be designated as a national park. That occurred on January 9, 1903.