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Mount Rushmore
Flora and Fauna
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 memorial.

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 heads.

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 and disease.

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, and bobcats.

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 branches.

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, inch-long needles.

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 feet high.

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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