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Badlands National Park Critical Park Issues

Visitor Safety

Seemingly easy to explore, the Badlands of South Dakota are deceptively dangerous. Although most visitors respect the relative instability of the highest pinnacles in the park, the lower and more accessible sod tables and buttes can be hazardous.

Remain on trails in designated areas. If you go off trail, you must be able to read a map and keep your bearings. The expanses of badlands can become quite confusing. Coupled with the summer heat and high winds, a very dangerous situation can arise.

Always travel with water, a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Make sure someone knows where you have gone.

The park does have resident prairie rattlesnakes. However, the prairie rattler is the least aggressive of all rattlesnakes. If you remember that they like to hide in cracks and crevices or lie in wait for their prey - amphibians, insects, and small birds - in the grasses, you should not encounter a rattler. Statistically, the most dangerous creature of Badlands National Park is the prickly pear cactus. Always wear closed toe shoes when exploring the park.


Although Badlands National Park has been a part of the National Park System since 1939, it has never been the subject of a park-wide archaeology survey. This critical research tool would help the park make decisions on development, education, preservation, and resource management activities. In 1998, a small portion of the park was surveyed by students from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a special handout was composed based on their findings.


The area protected within Badlands National Park is considered to be the birthplace of the science of vertebrate paleontology. Containing some of the richest and most diverse species of Oligocene fossil beds in the world, the White River Badlands of South Dakota are subject to much study and speculation.

The park has a professional paleontologist on staff who coordinates research with universities, colleges, and museums. Each year, the park has research staff who prepare fossils, conduct field surveys, and document the rich fossil history contained in the park formations.

Fossil poaching has become a major park concern. You can help by:

Never removing a fossil or artifact from the park

Reporting fossil finds to park staff

Reporting suspicious vehicles or other visitors who do pick up fossils while in the park Bison Bison were once the large dominant plant grazers in the grassland ecosystem of the northern Great Plains. Now, appreciative visitors use up a lot of film when they are lucky enough to see them in the Badlands National Park. Bison were reintroduced to the Badlands in 1963, after an absence of about 100 years. The 600 head animal herd lives in the Sage Creek wilderness area of the park, and small groups of them can often be seen while driving along the Sage Creek Rim Road, searching with binoculars from the Pinnacles Overlook, or hiking in the Sage Creek Unit. If you see a buffalo in the park, you are observing the same animal as the tourist next to you watching a bison. Common usage makes these terms interchangeable, although biologists are more fussy in limiting buffalo to wild cattle native only to Africa and Asia.

No longer free to roam millions of acres of prairie, the Badlands bison are kept within the boundaries of the park to prevent trespass onto surrounding private and public grazing lands. This also separates them from their once infinite lunch bucket of grass and deprives them of a cool beverage from the waters of the White and Cheyenne Rivers. Predators like the wolf and grizzly bear, which once culled the bison herds are no longer allowed to live in this part of the country. Now, it is the responsibility of the park to periodically remove some of the bison, so their numbers do not increase beyond the capacity of the area to support them.

How do you keep an animate mass of up to 2000 pounds in the park? You don't. These powerful and agile animals can walk through manmade barriers, climb very steep terrain, jump over the fences typically used by ranchers, and quickly outdistance humans on the run. The most resource managers can do is persuade the bison that it is a good idea to live here. We try to assure adequate water by supplementing the area's scarce supply. We manage for quality forage with plenty of room to roam, and we maintain 30 miles of seven foot high fence which acts as a physical deterrent and visual barrier. Lastly, we artificially reduce the numbers of animals through periodic roundups. These extra bison have primarily been used to provide starter populations, promote genetic enrichment of other herds, and enhance cultural, economic, and religious activities on American Indian reservations.

It is important to have semi-free roaming bison at the Badlands so that their influence on the grassland is expressed on the landscape, helping to define the type and distribution of plant communities here. For many, viewing bison in the natural setting of Badlands National Park arouses special feelings about time, place, and our relationship with the natural world. This magnificent animal, along with all of our wildlife heritage, serves as a reminder of our individual and collective responsibility to protect and preserve what we have for all time.

Fire Management

Prairie ecosystems are rejuvenated through the presence of fire. Prairies burned naturally through lightning for centuries. Plains Indians also regularly burned prairie to drive out game. However, during the twentieth century, fire developed a bad reputation. It has been suppressed in places where it should occur, such as forests and prairie.

Badlands National Park has an active fire management program. Each year, the park attempts to burn a given number of acres of prairie. If you visit the park and a fire has recently occurred, know that the mixed grass prairie ecosystem in the park will restore its green appearance within three to four weeks. Prairie recovers much more quickly in appearance than forests.

Reintroduction of the Black-Footed Ferret

The black-footed ferret ( Mustela nigripes ) is considered to be the most endangered land mammal in North America. Thought to be extinct in the 1970s, a small colony of this small member of the weasel family were found on a ranch near Meteetse, Wyoming. Canine distemper swept through the colony, killing all but eighteen ferrets. They were trapped and protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. From these remaining animals, a captive breeding program has developed in U.S. and Canadian zoos.

The black-footed ferret is a prairie resident that is dependent upon extensive prairie dog colonies for survival. Depletion of prairie dog towns throughout the twentieth century has lead to the near extinction of this ferret.

Badlands National Park has been selected as one of the areas to reintroduce captive-bred ferrets. Native to the park, approximately 25 to 30 individual ferrets now live in wilderness areas of Badlands. Park staff are encouraged by the presence of wildborn kits (young ferrets). In fact, the wildborn ferrets are now producing young of their own.

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