I didn't give much thought to America's prairies until I moved to South Dakota. I grew up loving the hardwood forests of the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, then discovered the great western mountains as a college student. The grasslands of North America were something I skipped over, believing them flat, unvarying, and dull. What little I knew of prairie came mainly from childhood. Fourth-grade geography lessons, Little House on the Prairie, and the favorite Apple IIe game of eighties educators, Oregon Trail—these were the sources of the vague impressions I had about an ecosystem that historically occupied more than 1.4 million square miles of North America.
When I first came to work at Badlands National Park in 2008, the prairie took me by surprise. Far from being a pancake-flat plain with a boring lack of biodiversity, the grassland teems with life.
On July 30, 1994, an angler caught a white-spotted fish, just shy of 17 inches long, in Yellowstone Lake. The accompanying guide identified it as a lake trout, a species previously undocumented in Yellowstone Lake, and notified park rangers. Less than a week later, a second lake trout of similar size was caught and reported. As news of the find hit the media, more people came forward to report lake trout.
Yellowstone National Park recently announced that it had removed over 300,000 lake trout from Yellowstone Lake during its summer 2012 gill-netting operations. Yes, that’s three hundred thousand of the non-native, predatory fish pulled out of the lake, all in a single season. And many of them are real whoppers, like the one held by Park Service fisheries biologist Phil Doepke in the NPS photo at left.
Where did all these lake trout come from? Why does the park want them gone? How has the lake trout’s presence in Yellowstone Lake affected other organisms, such as the iconic cutthroat trout? Read more
Townsend's solitaires are fairly common in Badlands National Park and the surrounding areas in the winter months. You don't see them just anywhere, though. They tend to hang out in places where juniper trees cluster. In Badlands, that generally means places like Cliff Shelf or Deer Haven—areas where the steep badlands formations have slumped, leaving a ledge of relatively level ground. The gentler topography of the slumps retains a bit more moisture, allowing the growth of a shrubby woodland. This is a rarity on the prairie, where the climate is generally too harsh and dry for trees.
The eastern yellow-bellied racer is a common snake in the grasslands of western South Dakota. True to their name, racers are speedy snakes, long and slender. They’re nonvenomous and, in my opinion, beautiful: the archetype of what a snake should be. I was delighted to see this blue-green adult racer, roughly three feet in length, as I walked home for lunch today. Read more
I came to Isa Lake to look for tiger salamanders. But, as I sit on the shore, my eye is instead drawn to the dragonflies and damselflies that flit about, inches above the surface of the pond. These elongated jewels move with a precision and efficiency that far surpasses any aircraft built by human hands: one cruises steadily with ruthless prowess in pursuit of prey, then pauses to hover, motionless, in defiance of wind and gravity. The plump, rounded body of a flame skimmer passes by, succeeded by the slender blue needle of a dainty damselfly. A single dragonfly may eat three hundred mosquitoes in a single day. Read more
If you wanted to know what kind of person I am—what I like to do, what sorts of things I value—I would tell you this: I am the sort of person who has a favorite puddle. My puddle isn’t truly a puddle, I suppose, in that it is not self-contained, with no inflow or outflow. Despite this, I still think of it as a puddle. It is shallow, and lies along a Yellowstone roadside, and is fed by runoff from springs, hot and cold, in a nearby meadow.
I don’t want to say precisely where my puddle is, as my puddle is special: it is home, each spring, to hundreds of tadpoles. Most of them are young boreal toads. A few are spotted frogs. I can tell the difference by color: the boreal toad tadpoles (I think of them as toadpoles) are nearly black, while the spotted frogs-to-be are a lighter brown, flecked with gold. Read more
The harlequin ducks, I was pleased to see, were still at LeHardy Rapids.
A male and female rested on a boulder forty feet from shore, surrounded by raging whitewater. It was the exact same tiny island on which I had seen the harlequins in 2006, 2007, and 2009. There were other, smaller rocky outcrops nearby, but I’d never seen the ducks take advantage of them. The male was awake and preening, running his dainty bill over the slate-blue feathers of his right wing, giving himself a good shake, then starting work on his other side. The female’s head was tucked tidily along her muddy brown back, her weight sunk low onto the rock. The birds were relaxed and wholly in their element.