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Antelopes and buffalo in South Dakota

South Dakota

Look Closely: Wildlife Watching in South Dakota

By: Joel Welin

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  • States:
    South Dakota

Where the high prairie meets some of the nation’s oldest mountains, wildlife is abundant.

Lessons in how not to scare the animals away are taught at an early age: Stay upwind, be prepared, be quiet and patient, and photograph in the golden light of dawn and twilight. If you’d like to see wildlife au natural, here are some suggestions where to find them.

Bighorn Sheep

The elusive bighorns can be found in Badlands National Park, on the rocky walls along Canyon Lake Road/U.S. 44 west of Rapid City, and in Custer State Park along the ledges near the State Game Lodge and near the Black Hills Playhouse.

Bighorn sheep, natives of the rugged Black Hills

Bighorn sheep, natives of the rugged Black Hills
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Birds

Various types of birds can more easily be spotted in specific areas. Wild turkeys can be found everywhere, for example, while the state bird, the Chinese Ring-necked pheasant, mostly stays east of the Missouri River. You may hear them before you see them, so bring binoculars.

  • Prairies and Badlands National Park – bald eagles, golden eagles, falcons, grouse, hawks, larks, owls and wrens.
  • Foothills – bluebirds, bunting, crows, finches, jays, magpies, swallows, swifts, warblers and Western tanager.
  • Mountains – junco, nuthatch, thrushes and warblers.

The Chinese Ring-necked pheasant, one of more than 300 species of birds in the state

The Chinese Ring-necked pheasant, one of more than 300 species of birds in the state
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Bison

Custer State Park, Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park are home to some of the largest, free-roaming herds of buffalo in the USA. In Custer State Park, “buffalo jams” are common because the bison frequently cross the roadways without looking.

Herds of majestic bison roaming the countryside

Herds of majestic bison roaming the countryside
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Burros

Custer State Park is home to an old-fashioned Wild West hold-up: One burro will stand in the road blocking traffic while its companions go car-to-car seeking handouts of food.

Wild donkeys, known as the begging burros, solicit food from visitors to Custer State Park.

Wild donkeys, known as the begging burros, solicit food from visitors to Custer State Park.
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Deer

Both mule deer and white-tail deer can be spotted in herds on the prairies east and north of Rapid City, and south of Hot Springs, and in smaller groups in the foothills. They are also frequently spotted in Badlands National Park and in Custer State Park.

Mule deer, easily identified by the large ears and stature

Mule deer, easily identified by the large ears and stature
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Elk

More reclusive than deer, elk can be found in Wind Cave National Park, especially along Road 6, and in Custer State Park.

A pair of elk, a rare but welcome sight

A pair of elk, a rare but welcome sight
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Horses

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary outside Hot Springs is home to about 600 wild mustangs running free over 4,400 hectares of private land.

A herd of wild horses runs freely in the countryside.

A herd of wild horses runs freely in the countryside.
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Mountain Goats

Goats frequently can be spotted on the rocky walls near Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills.

A grazing mountain goat framed by Mount Rushmore

A grazing mountain goat framed by Mount Rushmore
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Prairie Dogs

These furry, little clowns might just put on a show for visitors, bobbing up and down in their burrows and chattering away with their high-pitched barks. There are a number of viewing areas in Custer State Park and in Badlands National Park.

Prairie dogs live in a maze of underground tunnels.

Prairie dogs live in a maze of underground tunnels.
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Pronghorn

Similar to antelope, they can be spotted in herds on the prairies east and north of Rapid City, and south of Hot Springs. Like many South Dakota creatures, they also frequently are spotted in Badlands National Park and Custer State Park.

The pronghorn is the fastest animal in North America.

The pronghorn is the fastest animal in North America.
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Getting There

Getting to South Dakota is easy and convenient via connecting flights from many international gateway airports, including: Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota, Denver in Colorado, Chicago O’Hare in Illinois, Salt Lake City in Utah, Dallas/Fort Worth in Texas and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Georgia.

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