A Journey Home
Located south of the US/Canadian border in what is roughly the geographical center of the North American continent, the Little Missouri National Grassland is the heart of the Badlands Conservation Alliance. A powerful force in the sculpting of this landscape, the lower course of the Little Missouri River continues to shape and nurture its broad, starkly meandering cottonwood bottoms and the 1 million acres of buttes and rolling prairie at its breadth.
Journeying across the Missouri Upland that exemplifies much of western North Dakota or similarly approaching from eastern Montana’s broad stretching prairie, the unsuspecting traveler inhales deeply as the plains drop dramatically away into the maze of scoria buttes and ash treed coulees below. This is Badlands country.
Layers of sediment carried eastward by spectacular ancient rivers originating in the rising Rocky Mountains were deposited on strata left by even older primeval marshes and inland seas. The banded layers of rock, coal, clay, and soil appear clearly on southern slopes sparsely vegetated with sage brush, rubber rabbitbrush, yucca and saltbush. With a 180-degree turn to shadowed, moister northern slopes, the world changes to deep green Rocky Mountain juniper forest, thick with chokecherries, skunkbush sumac, and in the north, aspen stands. Green ash and box-elder in sheltered draws of ephemeral streams give way to shrubby flats of buffalo berry, sage, and grass.
The Badlands, and the rolling prairie that surrounds and transects them, are a world set off from the agricultural landscape of plow and field, fence and farm. They are a remnant of what 26th President Theodore Roosevelt once called “this land of vast and silent spaces”. Hidden below the sight-line of everyday life, they capture and romance the soul, turning time back to when things were wild.
Migrating and native birds use the mosaic of diverse habitat. Grassland sparrows – grasshopper, lark, clay-colored, Baird’s, chipping, vesper – find their niche. Ferruginous hawks wait knowingly at the mouth of prairie dog mounds while golden eagles soar in summer updrafts and turkey vultures rock in timeless watch. Startlingly bright eastern bluebirds and Lazuli bunting contrast with the yellows of chat and American goldfinch and western kingbird. Towhees scratch in woody copse as mourning doves and nighthawks greet the dusk. Great horned owls atop mature cottonwoods await their nocturnal feast of meadow vole and deer mouse, frequently joined in winter by the snowy owl shifting east and west across the Canadian plains, and into the prairie south of the border. Burrowing owls share prairie dog colonies with magpies and meadowlarks and the less common Sprague’s pipit.
Located along the ornithological line where east meets west, the Badlands boast a plethora of songsters, requiring field guides of both regional descriptions. Whooping cranes range through this landscape, as do pelicans and sandhill cranes. Belted kingfishers haunt the Little Missouri in half-light hours and greater yellow legs wade the shallow bars. High over grassland meadows, upland sandpipers and chestnut-collared longspurs announce themselves long before being seen. Sharp-tail grouse “chuckle” as they flush from grass cover or winter hiding spots beneath the snow. Sage grouse inhabit the gumbo and sagebrush flats of the southwestern Grassland.
Within the boundaries of the Little Missouri National Grassland, the North and South Units of 70,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park still harbor wild herds of bison. Where once there were millions, hundreds remain. Elk from the South Unit of the Park have dispersed into the Grassland. Found also in the Killdeer Mountains just half a county east, elk are re-taking land once theirs. Reintroduced Rocky Mountain bighorn sheet scale the hoodoo buttes in isolated habitat along the Grassland's north/south axis.
Mule and white-tailed deer, the prairie’s racing pronghorn, beavers, prairie dogs, coyotes, badgers and rarer bobcats and mountain lions, along with 41 other mammal species, continue to inhabit the diverse and varied landscape. Eighteen reptiles and amphibians exist here, in spite of a cold and dry climate. The shy prairie rattlesnake is a less common sight than the astoundingly quick yellow-bellied racer, and it takes a keen eye to spot the well-camouflaged short-horned lizard. The distinctive call of the male Western chorus frog resounds throughout spring and into early summer evenings.
Wild flowers abound in a seasonal display of color. From the earliest prairie crocus poking through March snows to goldenpea, prairie smoke, sagebrush buttercup, moss phlox, scarlet gaura, prairie coneflower, sawsepal penstemon, blue-eyed-grass, leopard lily, aromatic aster, evening primrose and owl’s-clover; cool and warm season grasses intermingle with a palette of ever changing color. Western wheatgrass, little bluestem, needleandthread, porcupine grass, buffalograss, sideoats grama, and the “flags” of blue grama wave in the prairie’s persisting wind.
To touch this land is to be touched by it. To be held in its gaze is to journey home to roots that reared us, and made us human. May we have the wisdom to cherish from whence we came.