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Visit to Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Wild Horses - Teddy Roosevelt National Park

A pair of wild horses standing on a ridge top. This was with my long 400mm lens, and this was as close as the wild horses were going to allow our approach. It was still wonderful seeing a group of about a dozen, roaming in a valley bottom. Click on the photos for a larger view.

In addition to not doing much birding or photography this summer, I also failed to process photos from the relatively few photo opportunities I DID have.  That includes all the photos from our family vacation at the end of July into the beginning of August.  We LOVE visiting National Parks, and this summer we decided to do a driving trip to visit three: 1) Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, 2) Glacier National Park in Montana, and 3) Banff National Park in Alberta.  We’d been to the latter two before, but just once each time.  Banff was the end point of the trip, and in my mind was going to be the highlight of the vacation, while Glacier is a place we felt we “missed out” on during our first visit, because the “going-to-the-sun” scenic road was unexpectedly closed (still snow in early July!).

Teddy Roosevelt National Park? Eh.  I admit I wasn’t too excited about it before we left, but it was kind of on the way, and my wife and son hadn’t seen it before. We ended up staying a couple of nights in Medora, North Dakota, at the edge of the park, and spending 2 days in the park itself.  It ended up being one of the highlights of the trip!!

Lazuli Bunting - Passerina amoena

A male Lazuli Bunting stopping for a moment in a field of flowers. They are SUCH beautiful birds, and I have very few photos of them, so was quite happy to have this guy stay just long enough for a couple of photos.

Banff is gorgeous. Glacier National Park is gorgeous.  But my GOD, the people!  In Glacier National Park, we got to do going-to-the-sun road, but with the road jammed with tourists, it was almost impossible to find a place to park and walk on most of the route.  In Banff National Park, you can certainly find quieter spots if you get off the road and hike, but Lake Louise? The town of Banff itself?  The glacier on the way up to Jasper?  You sometimes feel like you’re in Central Park or some other park in the middle of a metropolis.  SO many people, which for me, takes away much of the joy of places like that.

And that, my friends, is one reason why Teddy Roosevelt was such a gem to me.  Let’s start with where we stayed, in Medora.  I had a bit of an issue with the company that seemed to OWN most of Medora, as they ran many of the restaurants, lodging, and tourist traps in town.  But Medora itself?  It’s tiny, and even in the middle of the tourist season, it was uncrowded, relaxing, and may I say, damn enjoyable for a town that could easily be turned into a gaudy tourist trap.  You can comfortably walk and see every site in town, walk to visit any restaurant in town.  There are a few shops that you’d deem typical for a summer tourist town, such as candy shops, ice-cream shops, upscale art…but they’re not crowded and don’t overwhelm the natural charm of the place.

The park itself is lovely. Coming from South Dakota, we knew Teddy Roosevelt National Park is sometimes described as a “greener” version of South Dakota’s Badlands.  That’s an apt description, because the topography and geological features do look similar, but with quite a bit more grassland and other vegetation in comparison with the Badlands. It really was quite lovely, and for someone trying to get away from humanity (one of my goals on any vacation!), it’s remarkably quiet.  We walked many trails during our two days in the park, and typically we’d only run into one or two other hiking groups, if we met any at all. I’m a sucker for open spaces and grasslands, and Teddy Roosevelt certainly has plenty of that to offer, in addition to the rugged terrain in many places.

Prairie Dog - Teddy Roosevelt National Park

An alert prairie dog, wondering whether to wait us out, or dart into his hole. I LOVE walking through prairie dog towns in the Dakotas. They’re often so rich with wildlife. Teddy Roosevelt offers several locations where you can see these guys.

With just 2 days in the park, I really didn’t get a chance to get away and do any devoted birding, but it was still a very interesting place from a wildlife perspective.  Bison roam through much of the park, and there was a time or two where we had to detour or pause on a hike to give some nearby Bison the spaced they need.  Pronghorn and deer were commonly seen, and more often than not, when you scanned the sky around you, you’d see soaring hawks.  Prairie dog towns are always a favorite spot for mine, not for the prairie dogs themselves (although they are darned cute), but for the wildlife that’s often attracted to them. In one spot we saw a badger loping through a prairie dog town (much to the chagrin of the prairie dogs), and we also saw coyotes on a couple of occasions. There aren’t many in the park, but one attraction from a “wildlife” standpoint are the few dozen wild horses that roam the park.  We did see about a dozen of them at one point, but they were very skittish and didn’t allow people to get within half a mile of them.  I did manage to get a few nice photos of a pair standing on a ridge, before they galloped away.

If you’re looking for a relaxing, quiet, beautiful, and UNCROWDED vacation spot…Teddy Roosevelt National Park really turned out to be a gem in my book!  It goes to show that the “big name” parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, or Banff up in Canada certainly are majestic, but a visit to the lesser-known National Parks is definitely worth  your time as well.

Losing habitat on the Plains

Grasslands - South Dakota

A gravel road and vast grasslands…one of my favorite types of areas to not only bird, but just to experience. It’s becoming a rarer and rarer sight with all the recent cropland expansion in eastern and central South Dakota.

I ran across (yet another) story this morning discussing the huge loss of habitat in the northern Great Plains over the last few years.  It’s not exactly “news” to anyone who has lives here and has paid attention.  A bit of background…in 2007, Congress passed the “Energy Independence and Security Act”.  It was a huge energy bill, with many components. One of which actually was a huge boon to my work at USGS EROS, as we became part of a huge project to look at the potential for sequestering carbon through land use practices.

However, another component is a renewable fuels standard (RFS), with hard mandates for increased use of biofuels by 2022.  In recent years the price of corn has gone up substantially, in no small part due to the RFS.  The result? Massive loss of grassland in my part of the world, with the Dakotas being hit especially hard.

It’s obvious everywhere I bird, both in eastern South Dakota (which has traditionally been a stronghold of corn production), and now increasingly in central South Dakota.  In eastern South Dakota where I live, the only remaining grasslands are 1) those that are on hilly or very rocky ground, areas too difficult to farm, or 2) individual fields that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  CRP provides payments for farmers to keep land in a grassland cover around here, but those payments can’t compete with the profits that can be made by putting arable land into corn production.  I can point to numerous individual fields just on my drive to work that used to be CRP, and had been grassland ever since I moved here over 20 years ago, that have been plowed under and converted to cropland in just the last few years.

The further west you go in the state, the more iffy a proposition it is to grow dryland corn.  The Missouri River dividing the state into “East River” and “West River” used to be a rough dividing line on where corn was grown. Rainfall in South Dakota is a gradient from west to east, with precipitation dropping as you move westward in the state.  One of my favorite birding locations in the winter is around the Presho area. It’s an area with a lot of grasslands and a lot of pheasants (and presumably voles and mice), creatures that attract a lot of winter raptors like Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, and even the occasional Gyrfalcon or Snowy Owl.  As a drier area than eastern South Dakota, cropland used to be limited to wheat, some sorghum, and sunflowers.  Not any more, as you’re starting to see farmers attempt to grow dryland corn even there.

It’s not just the conversion of complete, large fields from grassland to cropland that you’re seeing, it’s land management practices and micro-scale habitat loss.  From a land management standpoint, the other business that’s booming right now in the Dakotas is the installation of drain tile, underground piping that efficiently drains the land and allows farmers to utilize areas that once tended to collect too much water for cultivation.  One of my favorite little birding spots on my drive to work is now gone, thanks to drain tiling.  It was a low spot along a little drainage way, a moist area that had a grassland and some scattered cattails.  That area was drain tiled and is now a corn field.  From the micro-habitat side, farmers are also ripping out vegetation along fencerows and shelterbelts, trying to squeeze out every acre they can as crop prices are high.

To be frank, it’s damned depressing sometimes to drive around birding, seeing some of your favorite remaining grassland habitats being actively plowed under.  It’s a level of land-use conversion in the northern Great Plains that hasn’t been seen in many decades.

Especially as a father, I can’t help but think “when does it end”?  When do people stop thinking about MONEY, and their short-term well-being, and when do they actually start worrying about their CHILDREN’s future? It’s not just habitat loss, it’s sabotage of the very resources we need to survive.  Increased agricultural land use, drain tiling existing land, and increased fertilizer use as farmers try to bypass crop rotation and plant exclusively corn…all are pumping up nitrate and other pollutant levels in the very water supplies we depend upon to survive.

I tell myself, that just as with the inexorable spread of urban areas across the world, it can’t continue forever, right?  At some point, it has to stop, right?  The only problem is that human beings are too short-sighted to set that “limit” of when we stop degrading and destroying habitat and the resources we depend upon.  What’s going to eventually make it “stop” is ecological disaster…

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