he Black Hills represent a unique mosaic of forest and prairie environments, bringing together animals and plants that cannot be found living together anywhere else. As a transitional east-meets-west landscape, the Black Hills support a diverse blend of species from the deciduous forests to the east, the Rocky Mountain forests
to the west, and the deserts to the southwest, to the native Midwest prairie.
Life in the Forest
Elevation determines the type of vegetation in the Hills: the
high granite peaks surrounding Mount Rushmore support only sparse
plant life, while lower elevations and streambeds foster the growt
hof hardwoods and spruce, as well as many marshland weeds and grasses.
A variety of animals and birds can be found on the rocky ledges
and in the crags, crevices, and forests surrounding Mount Rushmore,
especially in the Black Elk Wilderness area, just west of the
The shaggy, white-coated Rocky Mountain goat (Oreamnos
americanus) often greets visitors to the memorial. With hooves
that work as well as suction cups, goats are exceptional climbers;
on occasion, they even climb to the top of the four presidential
Mountain goats actually are not native to South Dakota. The Black
Hills population can be traced to a 1924 gift from Canada to Custer
State Park. The goats escaped from their pens soon after arriving
and chose their new home among the granite outcroppings and steep
terrain of the Harney Range.
Massive curled horns are the most distinctive feature of bighorn
sheep (Ovis canadensis). Bighorns are not native to
the Black Hills either but were introduced following the extinction
in 1916 of indigenous Audubon sheep (Ovis canadensis
auduboni), which were wiped out by unrestricted game hunting
Overhead, you will likely see turkey vultures (Cathartes
aura) circling on the thermal updrafts that rise from the
mountain. These raptors are often mistaken for bald eagles
(Haliaeetus leucocephalus), which also frequent the Black
Hills. Mature bald eagles have white heads and tails, while soaring
turkey vultures are distinguished by their red heads and white-and-black
underwings. Numerous other birds, such as hawks and meadowlarks,
are transient visitors to the park.
Least chipmunks (Eutamius minimus) and red squirrels
(Tamiassciurus hudsonicus) can be seen scurrying from rock
to tree at the memorial, while the forests and nearby plains also
support beavers, badgers, raccoons, skunks, porcupines, coyotes,
The dominant tree at Mount Rushmore, and indeed throughout the
Black Hills, is the ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa).
Towering as high as 180 feet above the ground, the tree is widespread
throughout the western U.S. and Canada. Its bark is yellow to
orange in mature trees and black in younger trees, with 5- to
10-inch dark green needles growing in tufts near the end of its
The bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is found in the
lowest elevations of the memorial, preferring bottomland soils.
A hardwood known to reach 80 feet, its leaves are 6 to 12 inches
long and edged with between 5 and 9 rounded lobes. The state tree
of South Dakota, the Black Hills spruce (Picea glauca)
also is found in the cool gulches and basins of Mount Rushmore.
Growing to a height of 75 feet, this tree has an ash-brown bark,
and its thin branches are covered with rigid, but not prickly,
Nine families of shrub make their home beneath the trees at Mount
Rushmore. Some, such as the shadblow serviceberry (Amelanchier
alnilfolia), the common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana),
and the Missouri gooseberry (Ribes missouriense),
flower as early as April.
Literally hundreds of wildflowers can be seen in the Black Hills.
Among the most common varieties you'll see at Mount Rushmore are
from the snapdragon, sunflower, and violet families.
Look for the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta),
which blooms June through October, and the Missouri goldenrod
(Solidago missouriensis), which flowers July through September.
Life on the Prairie
The evergreen forests and stands of deciduous trees of the Black
Hills are interrupted by stretches of fertile meadows, gradually
giving way to a sea of prairie grass that flows past Badlands
National Park to become the Great Plains. This variegated prairie
environment, which is found in the preserves of Custer State Park,
Wind Cave National Park, and the Black Elk Wilderness Area, supports
a different, yet coexistent, diversity of life.
The American bison (Americana bison), or buffalo,
is the largest animal on the prairie, growing up to six feet tall
and weighing as much as a ton. Native to the area, bison were
reintroduced to Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park
after wholesale slaughter reduced their numbers from nearly 60
million to about 800 in the late nineteenth century. Seemingly
slow and clumsy, these shaggy brown creatures are surprisingly
quick for their size.
The pronghorn (Anilocarpa americana), often referred
to as the antelope, is commonly spotted in the grassy plains surrounding
the Hills. Blending with the prairie by virtue of tan-and-white
coloring, they can, if threatened, sprint at speeds up to 50 mph.
Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), with their trademark
large ears, and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
are the most common native large animals.
Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park also are home to
elk (Cervus canadensis), which are found on the
higher ridges during the day and in the open, rolling meadows
at dusk and dawn. A bull elk can weigh up to one ton, stand five
feet at the shoulders, and carry a rack of antlers up to five
In the lowlands, cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits, and prairie
dogs, so named for their doglike bark, are abundant.
The lanced-leaved cottonwood (Populus acuminata)
and the eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) are
found in small numbers in the lower canyons of Mount Rushmore.
Named for their 3- to 4-inch-long seed-bearing capsules that release
cottonlike seeds into the early summer winds, the trees can attain
a height of 75 to 100 feet. The bark of mature cottonwood trees
is gray and furrowed, while the leaves are large, tooth-edged,
and roughly triangular.
A vital range grass of the Great Plains, the blue grama
(Bouteloua gracilis) is able to withstand drought conditions
extremely well, providing nourishment for range animals during
dry periods. Its leaves, which grow 3 to 6 inches, are made up
of curved seed spikes, giving them a distinctive comblike appearance.
Another common member of the grass family, the little bluestem
(Andropogon scoparius), is seen in late summer or early
fall, when the first frost turns it a warm bronze color. Wit
hseed heads that are densely hairy at maturity, the little bluestem
is a nutritious forage grass and makes good winter hay.
In late spring and late summer, the prairie puts on its most colorful
wildflower displays, including orchids, lilies, gentians, evening-primroses,
aster, penstemons, and cacti, to name a few. Look for
South Dakota's state flower, the pasqueflower (Anemone
patens), which is in the buttercup family and flowers from
April through June.
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