The Sea of Grass
Close encounters with charismatic mini-fauna
Of the dozens of places Leslie and I have camped since we picked up Next Chapter nearly two years ago, one stands out for sheer entertainment value: Sage Creek Campground in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.
The campground is small (22 sites), and although it features some amenities — vault toilets, meager shade structures and picnic tables — it lacks potable water, and the road to it is unpaved and impassable in wet weather. Which means that, as far as we are concerned, it’s the best kind of “developed” campground: one inconvenient and rustic enough to deter crowds.
We were there in early May 2021, during a two-week, 3,200-mile road trip that took us across Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado. We camped in many memorable spots along the way:
· A pinyon pine-juniper forest in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, where we tracked sticky mud and slush into the van during a surprise snowfall.
· A beautiful lakeside site in Wyoming’s Keyhole State Park, not far from Devil’s Tower National Monument, where amorous male Canada geese honked and splashed away the hours chasing females and fending off rivals. As a plus, the high-pressure flow from the water spigots there enabled us to hose the crusted mud off our floor mats that we’d tracked in at Flaming Gorge.
· A scenic boondocker site in Buffalo Gap National Grassland, with a spectacular view of Badlands National Park, that made a cameo appearance in the 2020 film “Nomadland.” (It pops up at 1:17 in the official trailer). One morning there, we sat in the van drinking coffee as a band of bighorn sheep climbed out of a gully about 10 feet from the open sliding door and ambled past us as if we were not there.
· A pullout along a dirt forest road in the Black Hills near Mt. Rushmore, where we photographed delicate pasque flowers — state flower of South Dakota — in the needle litter beneath ponderosa pines.
· A boondocker site in Utah’s San Rafael Swell, which was not very scenic but was a short hike away from the astounding Rochester petroglyph panel.
But, as I mentioned before, none topped Sage Creek for entertainment. That’s because we found ourselves surrounded there by the West’s most charismatic mini-fauna.
The Great Plains
Although not as attention-grabbing as tall trees, grasses are really the defining flora of North America. Or at least they once were.
Biologists estimate that two centuries ago, tall-grass, short-grass and mixed-grass prairies covered more than 295 million acres (461,000 square miles) in the 14 states that lie all or in part within the Great Plains. Throw in the prairies that extend from the Great Plains north into Canada and south into Mexico, and those American grasslands scattered outside the Plains (primarily the sagebrush steppe that once blanketed the vast, dry lands west of the Rockies and east of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades), and the total encompassed nearly 40 percent of North America.
The Great Plains were also one of the first new and utterly unfamiliar landscapes traversed by Americans from the East who followed any of the emigrant trails that led to the Oregon Territory, California and other objects of Manifest Destiny between the Mississippi and the Pacific. Crossing the Plains was a common experience of all the 19th century pioneers — or invaders, from the perspective of the indigenous people already inhabiting those lands — who journeyed overland seeking a new life in the West.
Grasslands are efficient engines for the conversion of solar energy, soil chemicals and water into plant life. Grasses flourish in precisely those conditions — low rainfall, a short growing season, fierce winters — that inhibit larger plants such as trees and shrubs. They have played a critical role in human history, for grassland plants in the Fertile Crescent were the ancestors of the staple crops whose cultivation enabled the birth of civilization. Five of the world’s 12 leading crops — wheat, corn, rice, barley and sorghum — are grasses, and provide more than half of all calories consumed by humans.
In North America, although native grasslands gave rise to few cultivable species (seed-bearing sunflowers being the only one still widely grown), their rich web of plant life supported an abundance of animals that early explorers found staggering.
The Great Plains at the beginning of the 19th century were home to at least 30 million bison (estimates range up to 60 million), as well as a nearly unimaginable profusion of elk, pronghorns, grizzly bears, wolves, birds, insects, reptiles and smaller mammals. There may have been as many as 5 billion prairie dogs in North America in the early 19th century, according to one estimate, occupying nearly 700 million acres. One such community in Texas, surveyed by a biologist at the end of the 19th century, measured 100 miles by 250 miles and may have contained 400 million of the burrowing creatures. It was a rodent metropolis the size of West Virginia.
Across the continent
I first traveled on the Great Plains in 2001, when I was working on a reporting project that involved retracing the path of explorers Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery, dispatched in 1803 by President Thomas Jefferson to traverse the lands of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and report back about what it contained. Their route led them up the Missouri River and across the Plains to the Rockies, which they crossed on foot and by horseback, then down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia Rivers in dugout canoes to the coast of Oregon.
I spent a year researching, reporting and traveling for the project, including more than three months on the road from St. Louis to the Pacific, and then another year writing the stories. They were published monthly by the Ventura County Star in 2002, leading up to the 2003-2006 bicentennial of the explorers’ journey. I later adapted those stories for a book, published in 2004, titled Voyage of Rediscovery: Exploring the New West in the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark.
On my journey in 2001, I arrived on the Great Plains from the east — as did Lewis and Clark and the multitudes who followed — shortly after crossing from Iowa into Nebraska. I spent more than three weeks traversing the Plains, including six days in a canoe paddling the Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River in Montana with my family.
I found during my exploration that it is surprisingly difficult to find remnants of the original Great Plains ecosystem. As I wrote in my book,
The fertility and compliant topography of the American grasslands also made them attractive to farmers. The Great Plains have been plowed and planted so assiduously that barely 1 percent of the original prairie ecosystem remains intact. In some states, the percentage is so small as to effectively be zero. Instead of grama and bluestem, the Plains grow corn, wheat, rye, soybeans. Bison were hunted and starved and harried until only about two dozen remained; where it has not been planted in grain, their former range is grazed by cattle. The once ubiquitous prairie dog is the target of sport hunters despite being a candidate for the endangered species list; both its population and its habitat have been reduced by 98 percent.
Grasslands worldwide have met the same fate, plowed and scraped, their diverse menu of native plants and animals supplanted by a handful of domesticated replacements (or by sprawling cities). Conservation biologists consider grasslands to be among the most imperiled ecosystems on Earth. As if in a story from Greek mythology, the botanical mother of civilization is being consumed by her children.
Scattered bits of intact North American prairie can be found on tribal reservations and in national and state parks, although most are well off the Lewis and Clark trail. Badlands National Park is one such place, along with Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, all in the Dakotas.
In search of those bits of the original grasslands, I visited all of those places. And eventually, I found myself at the Sage Creek Campground in Badlands, where I pitched a tent on June 24, 2001. My travel journal from that trip indicates that I spent several hours that evening enjoying the theatrics of a distant thunderstorm lighting up the prairie sky. It does not, however, record the kind of entertainment Les and I enjoyed there 20 years later.
Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents perfectly equipped for digging, with muscular front legs and long claws. There are five species in North America; the black-tailed prairie dog is the most abundant and widely distributed, and is the variety found on the Great Plains. They’re cute and social animals, chasing each other about, greeting each other with a face-to-face “kiss” and grooming their fur with catlike strokes.
Their burrows are from 6 to 14 feet deep and about 15 feet long, and include shallow chambers, where the animals can listen for above-ground signals from predators, as well as deep nests where they sleep and rear their young. The burrows have multiple entrances with slightly elevated rims of packed dirt upon which sentries keep an eye out for predators (the mounds also prevent rain runoff from flooding the tunnels). An average colony may have 30 to 50 entrances per acre. When alarmed, the sentries utter piercing, high-pitched squeaks, which generally send scores of other prairie dogs running frantically for cover underground.
When we drove Next Chapter into the Sage Creek campground last year after a day of hiking, we found ourselves in the middle of a prairie dog town. Apparently, the growing population inside the protected park had resulted in a rodent version of suburban sprawl. The roadside town I had recorded passing on my way to Sage Creek in 2001 had expanded two decades later to encompass many more acres, including the entire campground.
We found a camp site, set up our outdoor kitchen, deployed our folding love seat, and settled in with martinis to watch the show.
Prairie dogs were everywhere, popping out of holes, racing from one burrow to another, cropping the grass, calling out alarms when hawks flew overhead, and periodically engaging in what are known as “jump-yips” — a sort of burpee crossed with a sun salutation and accompanied by a loud squeal — that is, frankly, hysterical to watch. When one did it, others would spontaneously do the same, the leaping and squealing spreading across the town like “the wave” in a stadium full of sports fans.
(Not long after we arrived, a pair of bison grazed their way to the edge of the camp and plopped down, apparently intending to spend the night — reinforcing the sense that Badlands preserves a fairly intact pre-settlement Plains ecosystem.)
Researchers have concluded that jump-yips are periodic tests of the prairie dog colony’s emergency warning system, initiated by individuals to determine how alert their companions are. When response is poor, those individuals become much more attentive to their surroundings.
Lewis and Clark were just as fascinated as we were by prairie dogs, which they referred to as “barking squirrels” in their journals. As I wrote in my book:
The men of the Corps of Discovery were captivated by the strange little beasts, which they first encountered on Sept. 7, 1804, and decided to capture one alive — a determination that produced one of the most amusing scenes of the entire journey. After attempting to dig one out of its burrow, and discovering that the tunnels continued more than six feet below ground, they set aside their shovels and switched tactics.
The entire crew, except for a few guards left with the boats, spent most of the day hauling water from the river and dumping it into the burrow in an effort to flood out one of the creatures. As nightfall approached, they finally succeeded in flushing one bedraggled rodent from its home; it was confined to a cage and eventually shipped to Washington, D.C., for the edification and amusement of President Jefferson.
Leslie and I engaged in no such campaign. We were content to simply watch, cold drinks in hand, as the charismatic little beasts went about their business, the bison snoozed, and the sun slipped slowly toward the boundless Plains horizon.
Thanks for reading Next Chapter Notes! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Mind boggling. . At one time, there were 5 billion prairie dogs and one billion people. Today there are 7.7 billion people in the world.