It's the Season of Cute for Black Hills Wildlife | Black Hills Travel Blog

It's the Season of Cute for Black Hills Wildlife

By : 
Laura T

Nothing better than the smell of the awakening forest, as the pines begin to scent the air and translucent pasque flowers shyly show themselves in the sunlit nooks and crannies along the trail. In fits and starts, spring is coming to the Black Hills.

And while every season in the Black Hills is beautiful, spring has something the other three seasons don’t have: baby animals!

Spring is barely sprung before bouncing baby buffalo calves are kicking up their heels and aggravating their elders in Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and Badlands National Park in western South Dakota. Calves are born in April and May. Newborns are anywhere from 30 to 70 pounds and have reddish-brown fur. It takes only a few months before they begin to turn brown and their humps and horns begin to develop. They roam with the herd, often grouping together in “nurseries” that are protected by the adults.

By May, it’s the deer little ones: whitetail and mule deer fawns, plus elk calves. Elk are a large species of deer, and unlike their smaller relations, are more “herd-centered” in their behavior. If you find a tiny fawn seemingly abandoned in dense vegetation, don’t worry. Its mother is likely nearby. Lying still and quiet is how these infants survive their first few weeks before they are sturdy enough to keep up with Mom. Does often have twins and sometimes triplets, but cow elk give birth to a single calf. Mom keeps her baby at a distance until it is able to keep up with the herd, usually in one or two weeks. Early morning and dusk are the best times to look for herds feeding in the mountain meadows.

By late May, you may be lucky enough to spot a Bighorn Sheep lamb, a Mountain Goat kid or a Pronghorn calf. Lambs – generally just one but occasionally two –weigh from 8-10 pounds and can walk within hours. Mountain goat kids come one at a time and are weaned within a month. But they get to stay with their nanny at least a year or until the next kid comes along. Twins are common among the pronghorns. The babies spend the first few weeks hidden in the grass. Then, like buffalo, they join the herd’s “nursery,” spending less than an hour a day with Mom.

May is when prairie dogs give birth to an annual litter of five to 10 tiny blind, hairless pups. In six weeks, they emerge from their underground burrows, generally sticking close to home for safety until they are fully grown at about five months.

Coyotes, a major prairie dog predator, also give birth to 5-10 blind and helpless pups in May. Both the mother and siblings from the previous year care for them. By three weeks, the pups are playful and ready to learn how to be a coyote – a process that take about a year. Coyotes are most easily seen in the morning and around sunset.

Coming upon any animal baby is one of the unplanned pleasures of a Black Hills spring vacation, but it’s even easier if you plan a day of wildlife viewing at one of our parks or wildlife attractions:

Custer State Park: It’s called the Wildlife Loop Road because that’s where you will find the free-roaming buffalo herd, the wild burros, lots of deer, antelope and a wide-ranging assortment of lesser known animals and birds living the good life. Early morning or late afternoon drives offer the best viewing opportunities.

Wind Cave National Park: From Custer State Park, take the backroads (Forest Service Roads 5 & 6) into Wind Cave National Park. These gravel-road drives are two of the best-kept secrets in the Black Hills, with wide-open ranges where buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, coyotes and prairie dogs are surprisingly common sights.

Badlands National Park: It’s not uncommon to find a small Bighorn sheep herd hanging out near the entrance the Badlands on the Badlands Loop Road. The pull-off area is apparently one of their favorite places. Travel in to the Sage Creek area and you’ll often find the park’s buffalo herd grazing the surrounding prairie. Eagles, coyotes, antelope and, of course, prairie dogs, are easy to spot as you tour through the awesome spires and crevasses of the Badlands.

Bear Country USA: The cuteness factor of baby bear cubs highlights the annual CubFest, set for April 20-21 at the Bear Country reserve along Hwy. 16 on the way to Mount Rushmore. It is a rare opportunity to pet the cubs, plus other baby animals are on display in this drive-through wildlife park. CubFest tickets are $15 each, with children 4 and younger free. During the summer season, there are Critter Camps for kids ages 5-12, where kids observe the animals and get some safe hands-on experience with Bear Country staff.

Reptile Gardens: OK, the critters might not be quite so cute at this nationally recognized attraction known as the largest reptile zoo in the world. If you prefer all things creepy and crawly, you’ll be enthralled by the snakes, amphibians, bugs and large toothy reptiles that call Reptile Gardens home. Exotic and rare plants are also part of the mix.

Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary: Beginning June 1, guided walking tours are offered every day except Mondays at this sanctuary for unwanted, neglected and abused animals located near Spearfish. There are bears, bobcats, coyotes, large cats, domestic farm animals, domestic pets, birds and more.

About the Author

Laura is from five generations of South Dakota stock, Laura has lived a Hills-centric life for the past 30 years on her five-acre homestead near Nemo in the northern Black Hills. She happily enjoys – with no pretense to any level of expertise – fishing, camping, hiking, biking and any other outdoor activity that doesn’t overly tax her 1950’s model boomer bod. Her background is in newspaper feature writing and, more recently, as a writer/editor for Black Hills tourism promotions. Every year spent living in this one-of-a-kind beauty spot increases her ability to enjoy and appreciate all life has to offer. As a long-time gardener, she is deeply and optimistically rooted in the forward-looking motto to “grow where you’re planted” and live the abundant life.

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