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.
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.
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.
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