Wind Cave National Park is a relatively small national park with an abundant population of elk, bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and other prairie animals. To learn about the reintroduction and management of the elk, watch the podcast below.
Simple calcite rock. But something looks different... Is this and ancient spider web or petrified honeycomb? Use your imagination. This unique cave formation has taken on many different names to many different people, but to us this is boxwork.
Welcome to the Wonderful Wind Cave. I’m Matthew, a ranger at Wind Cave National Park and I bet that you’re wondering, “What on earth is boxwork?” It may not look much like a box to you, but to some of Wind Cave’s earliest explorers the formation all around me looked like post office boxes, and the name has stuck for over a hundred years. However, our understanding of boxwork is constantly evolving. And Wind Cave National Park is the perfect place to study boxwork because ...... believe it or not, Wind Cave contains nearly 95% of the entire world’s boxwork formations!
So what does make boxwork so unique and how did Wind Cave end up with more boxwork than any other cave? Well, I personally think that we just got geologically lucky. You see, there are many different factors that have all come together in order to form boxwork.
Let’s start with water. A long time ago, the land that is now Wind Cave National Park would have been covered in water and I would be swimming [chuckling]! This was a salt water sea and it was full of sea creatures. The critters’ shells, along with sea mud, became the limestone rock around me; while the salt became pockets of gypsum salt in between the layers of limestone.
The next step was that those pockets of gypsum needed to get wet. You see, gypsum is like a sponge, when it gets wet it expands. The problem is, in our case, the gypsum was surrounded by solid rock, where could it expand to? Nowhere! That is, until the water-logged gypsum pushed so hard against the surrounding limestone that the limestone shattered. The gypsum was then able to ooze into the cracks in the limestone.
Now, this is where it gets interesting, but also chemically complicated. You see, over time all that water began to chemically change the gypsum into calcite, which is just a little harder than either gypsum or limestone. The calcite then filled up all those cracks in the rock. Think of this new formation like a fossil; a fossilized cave crack.
Finally, the ever important, ever changing water became acidic. Now, we’re talking about a weak acid called carbonic acid...... but over long periods of time this acid is able to slowly dissolve limestone; and that’s exactly what happened here at Wind Cave (in fact, that’s what created the cave)!
The important thing is, since calcite is just a little harder than limestone, while the acid was able to dissolve the limestone, it wasn’t quite strong enough to dissolve the calcite. Think about it like a brick and mortar wall. The limestone would be the bricks; the calcite the mortar. Now imagine that just like the water dissolves the limestone, you remove the bricks. What would be left? What would it look like? A lot like the boxwork behind me, wouldn’t it? But, unlike mortar, boxwork is infinitely varied. It changes depending on the size of the original crack......or the mineral inclusions in the calcite...... or as other formations like popcorn...... and frostwork grow on top of it.
This makes each piece of boxwork even more unique. And the boxwork is also old; in fact, the boxwork had started forming before the cave itself had. This means it can’t grow any more. What you see here and now is it. This is all the boxwork we will ever have. Therefore, at Wind Cave National Park we not only want to teach you a little about the boxwork, but we also need your help to protect it. After all, if anything happens to this boxwork, it’s gone forever.
So I’d like to thank you for spending a little time with me in the Wonderful Wind Cave and learning something about our unique boxwork formations. And, if you ever find yourself in South Dakota, stop by to see us and some of this lovely boxwork in person!
Wind Cave is one of the world’s longest and most complex cave systems. Mile upon mile of labyrinthine passageways wind their way through ancient limestone rock deep beneath the South Dakota prairie. These mysterious rooms and crawlways are old beyond measure, and what we know of the cave today would still remain hidden if not for the adventuresome individuals who journeyed into the darkness and questioned what lay around the next bend.
The cave’s first serious explorer was Alvin McDonald . Alvin moved to the area with his brother Elmer, sister Mary, and father Jesse McDonald in 1889. The McDonalds were all involved in the exploration of the cave to some extent, although it was Alvin, who at 16 when he started his expeditions, found a particular love of the cave.
Alvin would often leave a trail of twine behind him as he explored the dark rooms and crawlways, ensuring that he would be able to retrace his steps through the seemingly endless tunnels. A candle would illuminate the cave walls as he plunged deep into the underground wilderness.
Even today when we look on the ceilings and walls of the cave we can see evidence of these early expeditions, in the form of signatures and arrows. Alvin explored the cave in this manner for only four years, until his death from typhoid fever at just twenty years old. Still, in this short amount of time, he was able to explore nearly ten miles of passageway, a monumental achievement even by the standards of today.
Without Alvin driving the cave exploration, little in the way of new discoveries happened in the years that followed. It wasn’t until the 1960s, nearly seventy years after the death of Alvin, that major discoveries were made once more in the depths of Wind Cave. During this time cave explorers Herb and Jan Conn along with Dave Schnute found this passage which would eventually become known as the Spillway, a tight crawl that quite literally “spills” over into miles of undiscovered cave, finally breaking out of the historic portion of cave found by the McDonalds. This discovery allowed the Conns and others to go on to discover sections of cave previously unknown and uncharted.
Since the Conns discovered the Spillway, many new and exciting discoveries have been made in the depths of Wind Cave. Lakes, hundreds of feet below the surface, chambers so large that your light is lost into the darkness, intricate formations that capture our imagination; all these and more lie deep beneath the windy prairie. Even today the cave is still being explored, and it is possible that hundreds of miles of passageways are waiting to be discovered by future generations of cave explorers.
Wind Cave National Park is known for a unique, complex cave, but there is another side to its story. Over 33,500 acres of mixed-grass prairie are preserved in a natural setting, which supports an abundance of wildlife, including the majestic elk. When visitors come to the park today they may be fortunate enough to see an elk or hear the haunting bugle of this amazing creature, but it has not always been this way.
Prior to European settlement there were believed to be over ten million elk in North America, but like most large game, elk populations rapidly declined in the late 1800s. Loss of habitat and over-hunting were the main factors. The elk that historically roamed the northern Great Plains were gone.
Wind Cave National Park was established in 1903, ensuring the cave was protected; however, the park was so unappreciated that the Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, commented, “Owing to (Wind Cave’s) inaccessibility and the fact that its scenic attractiveness is not sufficient …it should be classed as a local or state park.” This way of thinking started changing when conservationists began realizing the surface, a vanishing mixed-grass prairie, was vital habitat for Great Plains wildlife, and that Wind Cave National Park was an ideal setting for large game reintroduction efforts. In turn, the Wind Cave National Game Preserve was established in 1912, adjacent to the newly created park. By 1913, the American Bison Society had reintroduced bison back to the plains they once roamed. The following year, 21 elk were captured, crated, and sent by train from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Pronghorn antelope from Alberta soon followed. An additional 25 elk from Yellowstone National Park arrived two years later. Within six years of their initial reintroduction, elk populations dramatically increased and were estimated to be near 200.
On June 15, 1935, the Park and the Game Preserve merged, ending dual authority on the land. Wildlife had returned to the lands they once roamed. By this time, elk populations were so abundant the park faced a different problem - not enough food. Through efforts brought forth by park wildlife specialists, action was taken to control populations by regulating elk numbers. Returning the favor that was once bestowed to Wind Cave National Park, the park started to ship elk to other locations, helping to repopulate herds across the United States.
Today, Wind Cave National Park is still used by hundreds of elk, proving that reintroduction is a testament to the dedication and understanding that wilderness and the wildlife within are worth preserving. The National Park Service continues to protect elk in their natural habitat allowing visitors and generations to come, the opportunity to experience the thrill of seeing these breathtaking animals.
Welcome to Wind Cave National Park, a park with a problem. As recently as 2010 over 900 elk resided in the park, but unfortunately, this was at least twice as many elk as the 28,000 acre park was able support and the problem was getting worse every year. But how did the park get to this point and what to do about it?
Once upon a time the Black Hills of South Dakota were teeming with large animals, but as settlers moved into the area, nearly all large game animals, including bison, elk, black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions were hunted to local extinction or extirpated from the Black Hills.
As conservation movements gained ground around the turn of the twentieth century, people began to look for places to reintroduce so called ‘charismatic’ large game animals. The wide open prairies of the newly created Wind Cave National Park proved promising ground to reintroduce certain species.
Unfortunately, ‘charismatic’ in those days meant safe, cute, and tasty. Elk and bison fit the bill perfectly; wolves and bears did not.
At first this was not a problem. In fact, it probably helped small groups of reintroduced animals survive. However, over time, an abundance of grazing land and the nearly complete absence of predators led to a burgeoning elk population.
This is a concept called carrying capacity; essentially how many animals a given area can support.
And here I would like to introduce you to someone:
Duane Weber: Howdy! I’m Duane Weber, I’m a biologic technician at Wind Cave National Park her e in beautiful South Dakota.
Narrator (N): Duane Weber (DW)is going to discuss the concept of carrying capacity.
DW: Any piece of land can only produce so much forage and only provide so much habitat for a limited number of animals and so essentially carrying capacity. And the habitat, those components of food, water, shelter, space, those are all things that every animal needs.
N: Unfortunately, when an area has too many animals, or not enough habitat, bad things happen. At first, resources such as water and food are depleted. If the problem continues the land will be overgrazed and animals will start dying. This was exactly the sort of problem that Wind Cave National Park was facing. The park needed a plan to deal with our ever expanding elk population.
DW: The estimated elk population here at Wind Cave National Park is hovering around 800 animals or so, which is a little more than twice what we should have. Our goal population is around 270 to 470. So in order to get our population down to those numbers, we needed to do something. And, like any good agency, our first plan was to move forward and create a plan.
We had our share of public meetings, we gathered input from anyone who was interested in what was going on at this national park. That information was then distilled down. A draft plan was then presented to the public and at that point we also let the public know what our preferred alternative was. And eventually, in December of 2009, the plan was approved and signed off and implementation of that plan was then available and ready to go from there.
N: Other parks have faced similar problems and had to solve those problems using the same planning process as Wind Cave National Park.
DW: Two other parks that have had large mammal populations that they have had to control are Theodore Roosevelt National Park up in North Dakota and Rocky Mountain National Park down in Colorado. They have done a similar management plan process, but their answer to controlling their elk populations came out considerably different from ours. They have a annual cull operation and with firearms they actually sharp-shoot the elk from there, right within the park boundaries. The meat is then retrieved from the back country and winds up being donated to food pantries and soup kitchens. Yellowstone National Park went the route of reintroducing wolves into the park. The wolves are not only killing some of the elk, but they also provide an impetus to get those elk to continuously move. If the prey animals continue to move, then consequently they have a smaller impact on the vegetation that is available to them. Yellowstone has seen a tremendous control of their elk population, as well as a resurgence of a lot of their plant species that had been severely overgrazed by elk, with the reintroduction of wolves back into the park. So for them wolves are working really well.
N: While these solutions fit Rocky Mountain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Yellowstone National Parks well, as it turns out, they would not work for Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave National Park faced its own unique challenges and hurdles.
DW: Hunting inside a national park is not part of our enabling legislation or part of our rules and regulations. So in order to have done any honest-to-goodness hunting inside of Wind Cave National Park it would have literally taken an act of Congress, a change in our enabling legislation that would have had to go through the U.S. House and Senate.
N: Luckily, wolf reintroduction would not take an act of Congress. Nevertheless, what worked at Yellowstone National Park could not work at Wind Cave National Park.
DW: You have to take into consideration the incredibly large area, the literally thousands, hundreds of thousands of square miles that the Yellowstone ecosystem has that they were able to utilize as part of the reintroduction of wolves. Wind Cave National Park is about 33,000 acres, a relatively small island, especially compared to a place like Yellowstone and it would barely provide enough habitat and terrain for wolves to survive in.
N: So, without the options of hunting or wolf reintroduction Wind Cave National Park needed a unique solution.
DW: The option that was chosen after the analysis for the Wind Cave elk management plan, the option that we chose, the most viable option, the most cost effective option, as well as the most acceptable option to the people was the installation of elk jump gates. This is one of the elk jump gates that’s already been installed, it has been in operation for a little over a year. In its open position right now elk can easily move in and out of the park. The idea is that elk regularly move out of the park in the early spring in order to calve. That the elk that are out of the park once they calve we can close those gates, holding those animals outside the park right on through the fall, through the fall hunting seasons that take place on the surrounding public and private lands and that the hunters, during those fall seasons are the ones that will help us control our population.
There have now been sixteen of these elk jump gates installed along the western boundary. The fence has been rebuilt, reinforced to a full seven foot height.
The spring of 2011 was our first chance to fully use our elk jump gates. We were hopeful that several hundred elk would leave the park through our elk jump gates and that we would then be able to close our gates in late June, locking a large number of animals out. That did not happen. We had a hundred, perhaps 150 animals out of the park when we closed the gates in late June. But on the encouraging side, once the gates were in the closed position at no time did we have any of the elk that had been essentially closed out of the park, at no time did we find any evidence that any of those elk found their way back into the park or breach the fence in any location. So as a first test for the elk gates and for the new elk fence, I think it’s been a success.
In the near future, we will likely add hazing to our late winter, early spring operations to push a larger number of elk out of the park, because that’s their normal time to leave anyway, and that with a larger number of elk out of the park we will again close the gates in late June and hold those animals out of the park for the spring, summer, and through the fall hunting seasons where a larger number of them will hopefully be taken by hunters, thus helping us with our population.
Porcupine babies are called porcupettes. When they are born they have 15,000 quills. Porcupettes are born in the spring and, lucky for mom, the quills are soft. They can climb trees within an hour of birth.