Badlands National Park

Badlands National ParkHunted to near extinction, Bighorn Sheep have been reintroduced to the Badlands, along with other endangered species, including black-faced ferrets and the swift fox. Considered endangered in Canada, swift foxes are not on the list in the United States, even though only 10% of the original population survives. Invasive plant species are a serious problem in the Badlands, but controlling them is a challenge.

The Badlands aren’t so bad, really—just misunderstood. This windswept, treeless plain, carved by erosion into jagged spires and buttes and deep-gouged canyons, must have been hell for the early Sioux Indians and French-Canadian trappers to traverse; no wonder they slapped a disparaging moniker on it.

But those weird geological freaks are now this national park’s biggest asset. In fact, these easily eroded sedimentary rocks preserved one of the richest caches of fossils ever—saber-toothed cats, three-toed horses, pygmy camels, you name it (during the summer, watch paleontologists unearth more at their worksite, nicknamed the Pig Dig). Not only that, but because the land was impossible to farm, today it’s the country’s largest remaining stand of mixed-grass prairie, a complex tapestry of nearly 50 different kinds of grasses, from the tall big bluestem to the short buffalo grass, along with a summertime profusion of wildflowers.

Where you’ve got prairie, you ought to have prairie dogs, of course, darting in and out of the tall grass along with the cottontail rabbits. To get up close, go 5 miles (8km) outside of the park, down Sage Creek Rim Road, to Roberts Prairie Dog Town, a 300-acre (196-hectare) complex of burrows set up for observation. Along with some 6,000 black-tailed prairie dogs, you may see another fascinating prairie dweller: the black-footed ferret, with its long weasel body and raccoonlike face. Said to be the most endangered mammal in North America, the black-footed ferret was actually ruled extinct in 1979, until a few survivors were discovered in Wyoming. Biologists bred the last 18 of them in captivity, then reintroduced 36 captivebred ferrets here in 1995. It’s now estimated that there are 250 in the park and surrounding areas. With so little prairie habitat left, this is one of the last places this native ferret can thrive—especially since its main food is prairie dogs, another rapidly waning species.

The 30-mile (48km) Loop Road follows the Badlands wall, a massed series of spires and ridges that rise abruptly from the prairie floor. As you drive, you may see pronghorn antelope and mule deer grazing, along with shaggy bison, another native species successfully reintroduced to the park. Look up at the rocky slopes to spot bighorn sheep, another reintroduced species. Of course, human intervention backfires sometimes; one of the biggest issues facing the Badlands park is the spread of nonnative plants, such as Canada thistle, exotic grasses, and knapweed, inadvertently brought in by—you guessed it—humans.

There are a few bad things about the Badlands. You can’t drink the water; it’s too full of sediment. Those buttes are tricky to climb, with their loose, crumbly rocks. The parkland can be blistering hot in summer, prone to heavy rainstorms and lightning; punishing blizzards roll through in winter. And it is a long drive from almost everywhere. But remoteness has its virtues: So long as there’s prairie, we’ll still have bison, prairie dogs—and, once more, ferrets.