Viewing Wildlife in Wind Cave National Park

three bison walk on the road past a sign reading "large wildlife on road"
Bison are frequently seen from or on park roads.

NPS Photo

 

Wind Cave National Park is a small park comprised of a mere 28,294 acres. Small as it is, there is a remarkable variety of wildlife here and being able watch these animals in their natural habitats is an amazing experience. Because of the diverse wildlife in the park, one of the more common questions asked by visitors is "where are the animals?" The answer to that simple question can be very complicated.

All creatures depend on a particular habitat and once you understand their needs it becomes easier to find specific animals. Most of the park's habitat is prairie, however not all prairies are the same. Wind Cave National Park is located in an area called an ecotone. This is a place where two or more ecosystems meet.

Here the eastern tall grass prairie meets the western short grass prairie. It is also where the mountains meet the plains. So we find a diverse mixture of habitats. Within the park are ponderosa pine/aspen forests, riparian woodlands, and a mixed-grass prairie combined with other distinct plant communities.

 
a brown and yellow bird perched on a fence
Western meadowlarks are common summer prairie birds.

NPS Photo

These diverse communities create perfect homes for and wonderful places for visitors to see a variety of birds. If you are from the south, you might enjoy seeing a bird common to northern habitats such as the black-backed woodpecker. If you are from the east, the western meadowlark or western tanager might catch your attention. Wind Cave's ecosystems provide a variety of bird watching opportunities.

The park's larger mammals are not as picky as birds and use more of the park's space. Even then it is important to know what habitat they prefer. Bison, or buffalo, are grazers. They prefer open spaces, but they also like to get out of the heat during the summer months and can be found on the edges of the forests where they rest and use trees to rub the itchy winter fur from their bodies.

One special treat for a bison is fresh green grass. Tall grasses contain a lot of silica to help them grow. While that helps the grass, it's hard on teeth. So areas where the grass is clipped short and are greener are common places to see bison. Short green grass is common in prairie dog towns and places where a fire has recently burned. Don't overlook the park's prairie dog towns. The bare mounds and burrows make great places for bison to roll and enjoy a dust bath to get rid of insects!

 

Prairie dog towns are not hard to find. Prairie dogs prefer flat open ground where grasses grow easily and where they can see approaching predators so they can retreat to their burrows. Flat open areas are also great places to build roads, so it is easy to see prairie dog towns along almost any of the parks roadways. These small rodents have many predators, including coyotes, bobcats, badgers, and predatory birds. That means if you are looking for predatory animals, prairie dog towns are great places find them or signs of them.

Wind Cave National Park is home to the swiftest North American land mammal - the pronghorn "antelope." These astonishing creatures can run 60 miles per hour for short distances. They also have excellent eyesight, so the best place for this animal is the prairie where they can see and outrun their predators. The open prairie near the south entrance to the park headquarters and NPS 5 has wonderful open areas that are home to small herds of pronghorn.

 
a herd of male and female elk
Elk are often seen in herds.

NPS Photo / Charlie Baker

One of the most difficult animals in the park to see is elk. The park is home to several hundred elk, but finding them can be quite a challenge. These animals are hunted when they are outside of the park so they not only are hard to see, they are also hiding from us. Elk are most active in the early morning or late evening. They tend to stay in the wooded areas of the park and come to the grasslands to graze at twilight. A good place to look for them is along the park's less traveled gravel roads, NPS 5 and 6. Another option is to look evenings or mornings in areas where the grasslands meet the forest such as the prairie dog town near the Rankin Ridge fire tower. Another way to see elk is to leave your car and go for a hike. The Boland Ridge Trail is great habitat for elk.

Success in viewing wildlife can be a challenge, but a little knowledge about the park's diverse habitats makes that experience possible. Drive the park roads or hike the ridges, ravines, or trails that weave through the park. As you explore, look for the array of animals but also notice the assortment of ecosystems that support life in this remarkable national park.

Last updated: July 3, 2020

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Mailing Address:

26611 US Highway 385
Hot Springs, SD 57747

Phone:

(605) 745-4600

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