The Wildlife and the Beauty of Sage Road… Badlands National Park

Photo of big horned sheep along Sage Road in Badlands NP by Curt Mekemson.
I was getting the ‘look’ when I snapped this photo of a bighorn sheep on Sage Road.

Sage Road in Badlands National Park is known for its easily accessible wildlife population. We drove out it during our recent stay near the Badlands to see what we could find. This fellow, along with a few other bighorn sheep, was hanging out along side the gravel road. Its look seemed to say, “Don’t mess with me.” Big horn sheep were first re-introduced to the Park 1922 with more being added later. The park’s herd now numbers near 250.

This youngster is busy chewing on weeds. Bighorn stuff themselves with tough-to-eat grass like this and then retreat to somewhere high and safe where they can regurgitate it and chew it more thoroughly. (Remember your mom urging you to chew your food!) What we don’t have that the sheep do, however, is four stomachs to help in the digesting process. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Bighorn sheep checking us out.

We also found a few buffalo along the way. The National Park website, which is where I found the details on the wildlife included in today’s post, gives the buffalo’s scientific name as Bison, bison, bison, i.e. they are of the genus Bison, of the species bison, and the subspecies bison. Buffalo was derived from the French “bœuf,” meaning buffalo, and given to the large creatures by early French fur trappers. The Lakota name for bison is tatanka. Bison were incredibly important to the Lakota and other Native Americans of the Great Plains who carefully used every part of the buffalo they killed. An estimated 30 million roamed the area prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans who hunted the buffalo almost to extinction for their hides and tongues. An even darker reason is given for the slaughter: The US government wanted to disrupt the Indigenous people’s way of life to make way for the Euro-Americans. One way of doing this was killing off the vast herds of buffalo that the natives depended on to live.

Photo of Buffalo beside Sage Road in Badlands National park by Peggy Mekemson.
These large furry creatures paid zero attention to us as they grazed beside Sage road, which is what we wanted! They do look like something that would be fun to pet, however. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Don’t. The fur says pet me; the eyes say don’t even think about it. One does not want to irritate a creature that can weigh up to 2000 pounds and run fast, really fast. Sign after sign in national and state parks where the buffalo roam, warn people to keep their distance. Despite the warnings, some people insist on a closer view, which can result in a bad ending. I watched a video of a guy standing five feet away from a buffalo waving his arms and shouting. A few seconds later, he was taking flying lessons. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Peggy did not take this picture. Unlike her husband, Peggy does not take photos of poop to put in the blog. I tend to go along with the philosophy of the bison: Let the chips fall where they may.

It’s Fat Bear Week, as anybody who hangs out in social media is probably aware. The prairie dogs of the Badlands want you to know that they consider it discrimination that there is no Fat Prairie Dog Week. When their size is taken into consideration, they are willing to take on any bear when it comes to putting on the pounds/ounces!

“Bring it on bears!” this fat prairie dog seems to say as he prepares to stuff more food down his gullet in preparation for winter. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
When it seems like just about everyone wants to eat you (the fatter the better), it is wise to look both ways. Prairie dogs have a distinctive set of whistles that warns their fellow dogs of what danger exists. Is it a hawk, or a snake, or a coyote, or a black footed ferret, etc. that considers you part of their menu? There is a whistle for each. Or is it a camera carrying human who only wants a photo?The black footed ferret, btw, was close to extinction. It is now being reintroduced to areas where their main source of food, prairie dogs, live. This suits the ferret just fine. It can eat up to a hundred a year. I doubt that anyone asked the prairie dogs if they wanted to participate in the “Save the Ferret” campaign.

There is a Prairie Dog Town located along Sage Road. Park publicity and a pull-off guarantees that tourists will arrive in significant numbers to capture photos of the fat, furry squirrels. Sharp whistles warn of the two legged visitors. Here’s a fascinating fact that I read on the Badlands NP website: An estimated 5 billion prairie dogs once lived on the Great Plains in their underground boroughs. The largest of their historic towns has been estimated to cover over 25,000 square miles (64,749 kilometers)! For perspective, that’s larger than West Virginia and 9 other smaller states in the US or Croatia and 23 other smaller countries in Europe.

Beyond wildlife, Sage Road shows a different type of beauty than that found along the Loop Road, which runs along the Wall and through the badlands seen in the distance.

We loved the contrast between the golden grass on the gentle hills and green stands of trees found down in the gullies. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The lone tree caught my attention in this photo.
Peggy captured me heading for another tree I found interesting. Given my wandering ways, she wondered if I would stop there.
I did stop, even though the stand of trees up ahead was calling to me. This is one of a number of photos I took of the tree.
Meanwhile, Peggy had found a flock of turkeys that caught her attention. This was just a few of the flock. The others had disappeared down into the gully. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
As we drove back up Sage Road, returning to our camp, we stopped for a final photo that had more of a Badlands feel to it. Late afternoon colors were beginning to seep in. I’ll feature sunset photos in my next post. I was impressed. I imagine you will be as well.
A preview of next week’s post.

37 thoughts on “The Wildlife and the Beauty of Sage Road… Badlands National Park

  1. I was sitting around trying to decide why I would have used ‘draw’ rather than gully, and decided to go looking. I found this really fun entry that gives you a chance to test your knowledge on names for certain western features.

    The green trees against the dry landscape reminded me of western Kansas, where the lines of cottonwoods signal the presence of water.

    Have you ever visited a buffalo jump? Long before Europeans showed up, Native Americans were using jumps and fire to harvest their meat. When a Canadian told me about Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump, I couldn’t help laughing: but it’s surely a good description. I’ll add a link to a good site below, so I don’t get thrown into moderation for too many links.

  2. I recently read a paper in ScienceDirect called ‘Reinterpreting the 1882 Bison Population Collapse’. It questions whether the ‘slaughter’ narrative was as consequential as described. The paper suggests the crash was also a combination of an inflated perception of the numbers of animals, the loss of First Nations traditional grazing management, severe drought conditions and possibly disease.

  3. Nothing like a picture of a pear-shaped prairie dog to prove your point, Curt.
    I, like you, would have traveled down to that tree and further on, but then a crane would be needed to get me back up the hill.
    You’re right, the badlands have a look all their own. (I’ll skip over your poop.)

    • I might be a bit pear shaped myself, G, if I had to contemplate several months without food. 🙂
      The were gentle hills! Of course I have been in Florida enough that I understand where you might think of them as mountains. Grin.
      Skip the poop? You know that only encourages me, G. When we were growing up, we used to sing Home on the Range and the added a phrase to “Oh give me a where the buffalo roam.” And I’ll show you a house full of…. Sorry. 🙂

  4. “Let the chips fall where they may.” Oh my goodness, Curt. Good dad joke. Lots of great photos here. Did I tell you that Natives in the Plains made moccasins out of prairie dog leather? Because they’re so small, it’s hard to use them for anything else, but they’re a great size for shoes! This is a place I’d love to visit. I haven’t yet made it because it’s really not on the way to anywhere. But I’ll get there one day. Thanks for the photos to hold me over in the meantime.

  5. Gorgeous pictures Curt. Wow that’s a lot of big horn sheep. That bison or is it a buffalo is giving you the stink eye.. maybe a little close for comfort.
    Amazing time it look like. Keep having fun and sending pictures💗

    • I wouldn’t want to be out of the car having a discussion with it, Cindy. 🙂 They say when they start pawing the ground or twitching their tail it is time to back off. They rarely charge a vehicle, however. I did read where one in Yellowstone charged a car during mating season. I wonder if it was just irritated or saw the car as competition. 🙂
      And we are having a grand time. Thanks. –Curt

  6. How beautiful, Curt. I love those photos of the rolling land and the trees. And wonderful wildlife. The numbers that once roamed the land are stunning, and their vastly depleted numbers are disheartening. It’s depressing to me that the US government still hasn’t acknowledged the genocide of millions and millions of Native Americans. I could start on a massive rant, but I’ll leave you with my utter dismay.
    Thanks to you and to Peggy for the wonderful images of the Badlands.

  7. Fabulous post! Love all the wildlife. Love the photos. Love the fat prairie dogs. Don, who’s been following the fat bear contest, got a good chuckle from the prairie dogs. Don’t love the reason for slaughtering all the bison 😢. Euro-colonists everywhere. Just as bad in their deeds and thinking in Canada and Australia. 😢
    Gorgeous landscape.

    • Thanks, Alison. I thought that the fat prairie dogs and fat bears went quite well together. Actually, those fat bears wouldn’t have minded some of those fat prairies dogs as part of their diet. As for bad behavior, I don’t think anyone has a corner on the market. Sadly.

  8. Have you (or Peggy) read “Eating Stone” by Ellen Melloy? Marvelous in depth look at the BigHorns down in Navajo country (and elsewhere.) We were lucky enough to encounter them at the Valley of Fire in NV. The ‘stink eye’ look is impressive on the males. 
    Have you ever come across the YouTube video of the couple who encountered a massive herd of bison up around Yellowstone? (If memory serves.) They were on a motorcycle… NOT something I’d want to sit through for a good extended while like that. I would think being surrounded by them in a car or van would be unnerving enough!
    I vote for Prairie Dogs over Fat Bears any old time! I’ve come across bits about how the Prairie Dogs aren’t do so well (at least in the SW). Sigh.

    • We haven’t seen the book, Gunta, but we will keep and eye out for it.
      I can imagine how nerve wracking facing a herd of buffalo on a motorcycle would be. It’s not bad in a car. They mainly don’t pay any attention to you. I remember dealing with a herd of water buffalo when I was in a VW bug in East Africa. That was bit nerve racking. 🙂
      I did read where a couple of the subspecies were endangered. Others seem to be thriving, just not like they once did.

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