Vast open prairies can look deceptively empty. But take a closer look.
A small dark shape on the horizon may actually be a bison grazing knee-deep in bluestem and other grasses. You may glimpse a well camouflaged coyote hunting among the prairie dog "towns". Slowly comes the realization that the nutrient-rich plants of the plains support an abundance of wildlife.
When first established, Wind Cave National Park's main purpose was to protect the cave and assist visitors in enjoying it. But by 1912, the protection and reestablishment of native wildlife within the park's boundaries was recognized as an equally important goal. Among the park's foremost missions as a wildlife sanctuary was the restoration of populations of bison, elk, and pronghorn to the Black Hills. By the late 1880s, these animals had been eliminated from this part of their range, largely because of uncontrolled hunting.
The story of the bison's return reflects the success of the park's management programs. Starting with 14 bison donated by the Bronx Zoo in 1913, the herd numbers about 350 today.
Other wildlife, including mule deer, cottontail rabbits, and many kinds of birds, live in the prairies, forests, and hills of Wind Cave. Located near the middle of the country, the park embraces animal and plant species common to both the East and West. Don't be surprised to see ponderosa pines and pinyon jays-both Western natives-alongside American elms and eastern bluebirds.