“There ain’t much between the Pole and South Dakota,
and barb wire won’t stop the wind…”
So goes a pretty good song by James McMurtry, but I beg to differ with him – there’s a whole bunch of North Dakota in the way, to say nothing of Manitoba. I was up that way earlier this year with friends Don and Chris, and despite the long drive over roads as straight as a frozen rope, it’s a beautiful part of the country, with some interesting herps and other fauna.
If you keep driving west across the state, eventually you’ll run into the badlands country, and the Roosevelt National Grasslands. We visited both the northern and southern units of the grasslands, one day for each. In the northern unit we walked about three miles along a trail to reach a large prairie dog town. Granted, you can drive along the roads within the Roosevelt and see p-dawgs, but after hours of driving, the walking felt mighty good, the wind was fresh as a daisy, and the lark song better than anything on a car radio.
If you’re a painter, watercolors would be a good medium to capture the badlands. The landscape is soft upon the eye, brown and green grasses and grey-green sage, and the surrounding hills and buttes are all layer cakes of pale strata. Like other places in the west, the carved valleys reveal the age of the earth, if one cares to look, and after a time you might come to consider the vast amounts of absent rock and soil that are now somewhere else, torn away by rushing waters from the long-departed walls of melting ice.
There were several bison grazing close by the prairie dog trail, and we cautiously approached them for a better look and pictures. We weren’t tourists looking for a selfie with our new buffalo friends; at our closest, we still kept a respectful distance. I’m quite sure that anyone who has crept up on tatanka this way has thought about the logistics of living here, and of what it might take to bring down one of the behemoths. I know I did.
Don walked up a Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), a young adult about a yard long, and we took a little time to photograph it along the edge of a steep gully. Like most bullies, it hissed at us but did not offer to bite, even when handled. As always, the best part of the interaction is when the snake was released, and in the tall grass it quickly became just a suggestion of serpentine form and color in motion.
Along stream valleys, the hills and ridges erode into sloping bajadas; the thick layer of alluvial sand and soil is perfect for digging burrows, and so here the prairie dogs establish their towns. From several miles away, the town we were hiking towards was a pale green brushstroke across a hill, looking like a badly placed putting green. Reaching it, we realized that the pale green color was the thin grass, cropped close by the prairie dogs. Crouching or sitting among the mounds of dirt marking the entrances to their burrows, we watched and photographed the furry critters. The closest prairie dogs kept an eye on us, while ones further away played out their lives, foraging, visiting each other, using squeaky barks to mark their territory, and occasionally getting into dusty wrestling matches.
The southern unit of the grasslands offered much the same vistas and interesting mammals, but we also turned up some Short-horned Lizards (Phrynosoma hernandesi) along the base of a ridge. Horned lizards require a steady supply of ants, and the sandy soils along the base provided a place for the communal insects to excavate their underground nests. These lizards tend to match the color of the soil; the hernandesi I’ve seen in Arizona were an orangey brown, but here they sported badland colors, pale grays and browns, and easily overlooked by anyone looking for charismatic megafauna. I wondered at the straight-line miles between these horned lizards and the ones I saw in Arizona.
Other sights and sounds: herds of wild horses, horned larks, tiger beetles, mule deer, hill-topping coyotes. Wind in the grass and nothing else. Magpies flipping buffalo chips in search of insects. Petrified wood eroding out of a sand bank. Boreal Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris maculata) calling from roadside ditches. Oil fracking boom-towns going bust.
On the long drive home we stopped in Minnesota to walk some prairies, turning up Plains Garters (Thamnophis radix) and more Bullsnakes. We stopped again for sand prairies in Iowa, finding Prairie Skinks (Plestiodon septentrionalis), Red-sided Garters (Thamnophis parietalis), and more Bullsnakes. I could have stopped in Illinois for a chance at even more bullies, but after three thousand miles behind the wheel I was ready to call the trip over. Everyone, including me, complains about the long drive, but the beauty of the badlands is worth it.
For more insights, see Chris’ blog post on the same trip – Nothing Bad About The Badlands