Animals of the Black Hills
The American Bison
American Bison are truly iconic and have now been officially declared the national mammal of America! Among their many enchanting qualities, baby bison (known as 'red dogs') really capture hearts with a rusty red hue like no other.
Though they may appear cuddly, caution is urged when approaching any newborn calf - after all, who would want to test the mettle of such an imposing mother? From March until September each year, these young animals of the Black Hills frolic about in joyous play before taking up more serious pursuits for adulthood.
The male Bison (bull) can weigh up to 2000 pounds and stand up to 6 feet tall! You'll understand just how large these animals are from the safety of your vehicle or on our Wildlife Tour of Custer State Park. It's estimated that somewhere between 30 and 60 million of these majestic creatures roamed the plains before settlers arrived.
The female bison put the wild in the wildlife of the Black Hills. At 1000 pounds, they'll do anything to protect their little Red Dogs. These babies will grow to be the largest animals South Dakota will ever see.
Big Horn Sheep
Bighorn Sheep are acrobatic animals of South Dakota. While you can see them out in the open, more often, they are on craggy hillsides, at the edge of a cliff, or high on a spire in the Badlands. Bighorn sheep are either Rams (Male) or Ewes (Female). The rams are typically 110-250 pounds with curled horns that weigh up to 30 pounds on their own. These animals are herbivores, ranging from the Canadian Rockies to the arid deserts of the Southwest United States.
Their acrobatics comes from the design of their hoofs, having a split in them with rough bottoms. You'll see these creatures in the most precarious of positions, which can make a beautiful photograph if caught at the right moment.
These Black Hills animals are social, but the males generally stay together, and the females live in groups with the young. The males and females only get together during mating time. In Custer State Park, you can see them along ridge lines and on the rolling hills.
Their bright white color does anything but blend into the background during the spring, summer and fall. They stand out, but only when they want to. Mountain goats roam pretty much wherever they want, but one of the best places to see them is at the Cathedral Spires around the Needles Eye Tunnel.
Oddly enough, the mountain goats aren't native animals of the Black Hills. There were 6 original goats given to Custer State Park from Canada as a gift. They arrived in 1924, and on the first night, 2 escaped with the rest soon thereafter. They didn't take long to reach Black Elk Peak, which provided excellent protection. The original 6 are responsible for the population reaching upwards of 400, with around 200 in the wild today.
Mountain goats can be found near Mount Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and the Cathedral Spires. Keep an eye out for one of the most adored wildlife in the Black Hills. Although we can't guarantee it, you might see these magical creatures on one of our Black Hills Adventures. Even though mountain goats are not animals native to South Dakota, we'd like to ensure they feel at home.
The Prairie Dog
The Prairie Dog is one of the most beloved creatures of the Black Hills and Badlands. Any Black Hills tour company should know precisely where these chubby little buggers exist. Prairie dogs can be found in the lower elevations of the Black Hills. Related to the squirrel, they look similar, but there are some essential differences.
The Prairie Dog lives underground and is considered a keystone species. This means if they were to disappear from the environment they live in, quite a few things would collapse. The Prairie Dog is at the bottom of the food chain, meaning various Black Hills animals depend on their survival.
They also create an exciting habitat. When Prairie Dogs gather in large numbers and build their underground homes, this becomes what is known as a "Prairie Dog Town." How can you tell if you've come upon this wild west town of critters? Look around for dirt piles in cone shapes, about 3-5 feet in diameter. You'll find them in open prairies and with a keen eye. Bumps, mixed flowers, and weeds will exist around a prairie dog town rather than uniform grasses.
This is because when a prairie dog builds its home, it flings up dirt from the ground creating these mounds. That exposed dirt is the perfect ground for wildflower seeds and weeds to sprout from, making it the ideal munching ground for elk, antelope, and bison. Watch out, though; the entrances to their homes are large holes that can go straight down, making it a hazard for animals and humans.
Prairie Dogs are possibly the most abundant wildlife in the Black Hills.
Birds of the Black Hills
There are over 350 bird species in the Black Hills, and you can see many of them. Be still, listen and look. Standing in one place, you may hear dozens of songbirds. Some migrate as far as South America, while other birds are in the Black Hills year-round.
One of my favorite birds in the Black Hills is the Mountain Bluebird. The male has iridescent blue feathers, while the female is more muted. Like many birds, you can see them perched on fenceposts or barbed wire. In Custer State Park, many birdhouses are explicitly made for the Mountain Bluebird.
The Western Meadowlark is stunning and has a beautiful voice to boot. In almost any grassland in and around the Black Hills, you'll hear its call. It can be one of the most soothing sounds in the grasslands and prairies surrounding the Black Hills.
Raptors of the Black Hills include varieties of Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Owls. You can often find Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles in Ponderosa Pines, Cottonwood Trees, and even along the roadside, looking for a fresh kill. Hawks and Falcons are winged animals that make themselves known. It isn't rare to see one of these birds; you just have to stop and look around.
The Magpie is a pest for some and a love for others. I love the Magpie. It plays a significant role in the creation story of the Lakota People. Magpies can be found in abundance. Look for their blue and black feathers.