break from the herd

At Theodore Roo­sevelt Na­tional Park, stand­ing feet from wild bi­son or wan­der­ing petrified woods doesn’t have to mean fight­ing the crowds

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CHRIS­TINE DELL’AMORE | Spe­cial to The Washington Post

“Want to see a rat­tlesnake?”

For this ad­ven­tur­ous an­i­mal lover, there’s only one pos­si­ble an­swer to that ques­tion. So I hap­pily bounded down the hill af­ter ranger John Heiser, com­ing face to face — from a safe dis­tance, of course — with North Dakota’s only ven­omous reptile.

The mus­cu­lar prairie rat­tlesnake coiled partly un­der a ledge, cam­ou­flaged by the sur­round­ing sand­stone. It nois­ily shook the rat­tle at the end of its tail and be­gan slid­ing back un­der the rock, black tongue flick­ing. “See, he wants to get away — he doesn’t want to threaten us,” Heiser said.

He should know. Dur­ing four decades ex­plor­ing Theodore Roo­sevelt Na­tional Park, a 70,000-acre refuge in the re­mote Bad­lands of western North Dakota, Heiser has had many a run-in with park wildlife, which in­clude bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn, birds of prey, black-tailed prairie dogs and coy­otes, as well as bi­son, per­haps the park’s most pop­u­lar res­i­dent.

That woolly icon of the Wild West fea­tures in how the park’s story be­gins. In 1883, 25-year-old Theodore Roo­sevelt, a New York City ten­der­foot wear­ing a Brooks Broth­ers suit, came to what was then Dakota Ter­ri­tory to hunt bi­son. It was at the time a rare species: Over­hunt­ing had rapidly shrunk the herds of the “might­i­est of Amer­i­can beasts,” as he called it. Be­fore long, Roo­sevelt be­came en­am­ored with cow­boy life in the Bad­lands and bought two cat­tle ranches, places he’d go to grieve the deaths of his wife and mother, who died hours apart on Feb. 14, 1884.

Con­cerned by the de­cline of big game and over­graz­ing of grass­lands, he de­vel­oped a pas­sion for con­ser­va­tion. In­stru­men­tal in halt­ing the bi­son’s ex­tinc­tion, Roo­sevelt helped usher in an 1894 law that made it illegal to kill the an­i­mal in Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park. In later years, as pres­i­dent, he would set aside 230 mil­lion acres of land. He came back to North Dakota once, in 1903, but didn’t live to see his much-loved land­scape — in­clud­ing his home ranch, Elkhorn — de­clared a na­tional park in his honor in 1947. At that time bi­son no longer roamed the area,


so the park ser­vice be­gan rein­tro­duc­ing the an­i­mals in the 1950s— grad­u­ally restor­ing it to the en­vi­ron­ment of Roo­sevelt’s day.

A na­ture en­thu­si­ast my­self, I’d come to see crit­ters with­out the crowds: Just over half a mil­lion peo­ple vis­ited Theodore Roo­sevelt in 2014, com­pared with more than 3 mil­lion at more well-known parks such as Yel­low­stone and Yosemite.

So on a July evening, my fiance, Brian, and I drove into the park’s South Unit — the big­gest of its three sec­tions — via Me­dora, a well-pre­served 1880s town that touts it­self as the state’s No. 1 tourist draw. It was prime time for wildlife view­ing, and be­fore long I spot­ted a gi­ant black hump through the win­dow: “Bi­son!” We stopped to watch the lone male graze through our binoc­u­lars — no Yel­low­stone-style bi­son jams here. Wind­ing past the erod­ing plateaus of the Bad­lands, we soon saw another male, rolling joy­ously (or so it seemed) in the dirt. Later at the visi­tor cen­ter, I learned that many of these bulls live alone, as the an­i­mals tend to be­come more soli­tary with age.

Con­tin­u­ing north, we passed prairie dog towns, open mead­ows where the com­i­cal lit­tle ro­dents live by the hun­dreds. I could spend hours watch­ing them pop out of their bur­rows, paws tucked adorably to chests, or scam­per­ing awk­wardly about, oc­ca­sion­ally paus­ing to nuz­zle a neigh­bor. A fa­vorite meal for many preda­tors, they’re con­stantly com­mu­ni­cat­ing dan­gers to one another with chirp­ing noises that sound re­mark­ably like squeaky toys.

Around us loomed a seem­ingly lim­it­less ex­panse of striped, weath­ered rock, punc­tu­ated oc­ca­sion­ally by splotches of green. The peaks’ red­dish tones and bar­ren look gave it a feel­ing of Mars­like oth­er­world­li­ness, and I could tell what Roo­sevelt meant by his de­scrip­tion of the Bad­lands as “grim beauty” — a land­scape that was mys­te­ri­ously se­vere and invit­ing at the same time.

Ea­ger to ex­plore more on foot, we woke up early for a ranger hike in the Petrified For­est Loop, a part of the park that’s des­ig­nated wilder­ness, mean­ing only lim­ited, non-mo­tor­ized ac­tiv­i­ties, such as hik­ing and horse­back rid­ing, are al­lowed. At the gate, park ranger Erik Jensen en­cour­aged us to con­sider how few peo­ple have treaded here in mod­ern times: “It’s neat to get that feel­ing in this day in age.”

Yet any reverie was quickly in­ter­rupted by a steady drum­ming sound in the dis­tance, which Jensen told us was re­lated to the oil in­dus­try. North Dakota is in the midst of an un­prece­dented oil boom as many com­pa­nies hy­draulic frac­ture, or “frack,” the Bakken for­ma­tion, one of the largest con­tigu­ous de­posits of oil and nat­u­ral gas in the United States. Ev­i­dence of it is ev­ery­where in the re­gion. On our hike, we could even see pump jacks nod­ding on dis­tant hills.

The in­dus­trial sounds faded as we hiked far­ther across the hot, sunny prairie. The col­ors daz­zled, from sil­very sage­brush to dark green ju­nipers to cop­pery reds and browns of the dis­tant buttes. Bub­blegum-pink prairie roses and yel­low prairie cone­flower, whose blos­soms look like minia­ture som­breros, framed the path. At a trail in­ter­sec­tion, Jensen stopped to point out a strangely blank me­tal plate on a wooden pole: Park bi­son, he ex­plained, scratch them­selves on the poles and rub the trail names and dis­tances off in the process. (More on that later.)

We hiked into a wide val­ley lit­tered with stumps of petrified wood, trees that had been buried and fos­silized eons ago, when the

A ranger en­cour­aged us to con­sider how few have treaded here in mod­ern times: “It’s neat to get that feel­ing in this day and age.”

Bad­lands were a gi­ant swamp. Climb­ing a hill to see a par­tic­u­larly tall stump, I looked across the val­ley and no­ticed the rounded, tell­tale hulk of a bi­son, which, as usual, gave my heart a lit­tle boost. Jensen told me later that see­ing bi­son never gets old for him, ei­ther: “Ev­ery time I see them,” he said, “it’s a re­minder I’m in a wild place.”

Our day took a wilder turn at Cot­ton­wood Camp­ground — named for the tall trees that line the nearby Lit­tle Mis­souri River — dur­ing an evening park pro­gram called “Bi­o­log­i­cal Bad Boys.” White fluffs of cot­ton­wood seed blew about as ranger Jeff Zyl­land schooled our en­thu­si­as­tic class of tourists and campers on North Dakota preda­tors. Wolves and bears, the lat­ter of which Roo­sevelt pur­sued in his day, had long ago been hunted out of the area, he told us, and only one moun­tain lion is thought to roam the park. But other wily char­ac­ters re­main: He put up an amaz­ing pic­ture of a coy­ote and badger hunt­ing to­gether in a prairie dog town, which he re­ferred to as “the re­frig­er­a­tor of the Bad­lands.” A tourist, I noted with envy, had taken the photo.

But he truly shocked the group with his slide of a prairie dog and the words: “Cute, cud­dly, cannibal killers.” Fe­male prairie dogs, sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered, will some­times kill their close rel­a­tives’ ba­bies, and can be seen flee­ing the crime scene with blood-cov­ered faces. “Did I ruin prairie dogs for any­one?” he asked. “Yes!” a girl shouted from the front row. Zyl­land ended the pro­gram with a re­minder that Roo­sevelt ush­ered in the idea of con­ser­va­tion as pro­tect­ing the whole ecosys­tem — as he puts it, “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Driv­ing back to our cabin that night, we got in a few more good-crit­ter sight­ings: A male elk, antlers tiered higher than a wed­ding cake, trot­ted in front of our head­lights, and a col­or­ful herd of feral horses grazed near the road, a tiny jet-black foal with a white blaze romp­ing among them. Our streak con­tin­ued the next morn­ing when a small herd of pronghorn — ar­guably North Amer­ica’s fastest land an­i­mal — gal­loped across the grass­lands. Laugh­ing, Brian pointed out a male with some un­usual head­gear: a huge sage­brush tan­gled in his horns. “Looks like Lady Gaga of the prairie,” I said.

By our last day in the park, we’d seen many of the usual sus­pects, plus a bull snake, a mama mule deer with twins, goldfinches and a tur­key. The only big-ticket item we had yet to see was bighorn sheep, which only live in the North Unit, about an hour’s drive north, where the peo­ple are even fewer and the scenery more grandiose. We set out along the forested Caprock Coulee Trail, dodg­ing squishy bi­son “pies” as drag­on­flies darted over­head like lit­tle aerial bombers. Hik­ing up to a ridge, I was ad­mir­ing the gor­geous Bad­land views whenmy stom­ach lurched: The trail marker had been rubbed blank, just like in the Petrified For­est. Study­ing the park map as best we could, Brian and I took one trail, only to dis­cover it led to a cliff. Af­ter a few ner­vous min­utes, we got back on track — no thanks to itchy bi­son.

Our fi­nal North Unit stop was the panoramic Oxbow Over­look, where we looked through our binoc­u­lars in vain for bighorn sheep that might be clam­ber­ing among the rocky buttes. Maybe that’s be­cause there were fewer of them, as many of these ac­ro­batic an­i­mals have died re­cently be­cause of pneu­mo­nia trans­mit­ted from do­mes­tic live­stock.

But our luck hadn’t run out yet. On our last drive through Theodore Roo­sevelt, we rounded a bend and ex­claimed at the tableau laid out be­fore us: A bi­son herd, with an­i­mals of all dif­fer­ent ages and sizes, smat­tered across the val­ley. Cin­na­mon-hued ba­bies played be­side their moth­ers and mas­sive bulls rested re­gally in the grass. To top it off, a pair of feisty young males butted heads right in front of us. I strug­gled to find a word to de­scribe my de­light when “Bully!” came to mind. Teddy would’ve surely ap­proved.


A bi­son, which Theodore Roo­sevelt called the “might­i­est of Amer­i­can beasts,” in the U.S. pres­i­dent’s epony­mous na­tional park in North Dakota.


Some of the 70,000 acres of Theodore Roo­sevelt Na­tional Park. The oth­er­worldly ter­rain of western North Dakota was beloved by the 26th pres­i­dent, who first vis­ited the area at 25 to hunt bi­son. Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt even­tu­ally made halt­ing their ex­tinc­tion, and wilder­ness con­ser­va­tion in gen­eral, a na­tional pri­or­ity.


From left, wild horses, prairie dogs (more ruth­less than they look) and prairie rat­tlesnakes roam free in North Dakota’s Theodore Roo­sevelt Na­tional Park. Ex­plor­ers can also get close-ups of bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn and the most pop­u­lar res­i­dent, bi­son. (You know you’re hot on the trail of one when you see worn-down park sig­nage.)


Park em­ployee Erik Jensen talks to hik­ers at the gate to the wilder­ness area, which in­cludes an an­cient petrified for­est and where a ban on mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles keeps the land un­spoiled.


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