Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bad Lands?

The night before, we had camped in a small RV park in Wall South Dakota.  If you have ever driven across the midwest, you have probably seen signs to Wall Drug. We were in Wall to see Wall Drug but that story is for a different post.  This entry will leave that bad land for the natural Badlands which were anything but bad.

We were driving along through the grasslands of South Dakota, among the last remaining natural grasslands, part of what was once the great prairies of our country. suddenly, the bottom fell out of the land and the canyons and buttes of The Badlands National Park were before us.
It truly was like that.  Because the land had been so flat, we had no clue of what was to come.  As far as our eyes could tell, the grasslands continued on forever.  
I think of what it must have been like for travelers who first came upon the sight. For them it would take great skill to learn how to cross the area.  For us, it was not quite so hard. The paved road helped alot but it did not detract from our awe of the landscape.
The badlands are formed by erosion.  The whole area was once a vast inland sea with whales and other sea life. The see dried up and the great flat land became occupied by animals like the tiny dog size horses and wooly mammoths.  While the sea was drying, dinosaurs and other animas  became mired in the drying mud, their bones becoming fossilized. At one time just a few rivers flowed off the Rocky Mountains to the west. the lands below were formed by sediments from these rivers, dust off the mountains and volcanic ash deposited from western volcanoes. As earthquakes and other natural forces changed the land, rivers changed their course, split, flooded and dried up.  The waters flowing across the soft land cut into it in many directions forming sharp ,steep canyons, revealing the many layers that made up the land.

In the picture above you can see a continuous gray layer that is volcanic ash that was deposited by the wind on the previously flat surface.  (if not, then double click to make the photo larger.) Colors in the badlands range from very dark . . .
. . .to almost white. Much of the light layer comes from years of dust and silt.
This is the softest and most recent layer.  Most of the strange shapes and spires are formed in this layer, easily eroded with wind and each falling rain drop.
While the landscape did not look inviting, many animals found it comfortable.  These included
prairie dogs.

 They squeaked and grazed near their burrows.  In the past the prairie dog population was controlled in the badlands by black-footed ferrets who kill the cute rodents then steal their burrows. Both animals were often meals for coyotes on the ground or raptors that dove from overhead.  Black-footed ferrets were hunted to extinction in the Badlands, but have been reintroduced to re-balance the habitat.
Another animal that was hunted to extinction was the Audubon bighorn sheep. Rocky Mountain big horn sheep were brought in to fill in their spot in the habitat.
The collars around each sheep's neck is a radio collar used to track them. They are not tame though they have little fear of humans in cars.  These sheep have probably never been shot at so they are very patient with tourists stopping to take photographs. Whenever a car stopped too long, though, the sheep became alert, ready to run if needed. 
The US Forestry manages the park and tries to keep invasive species out.  To help do this they use burning which is a traditional, natural control in grasslands.  While the badlands seems to have more cliffs than grass, it is still part of the grasslands.  The controlled burn was to rid the area of invasive plants such as yellow sweet clover , wheat grass and smooth brome.  The yellow sweet clover particularly is harmful because it fixes nitrogen in the ground and shades the ground, making it much more difficult for native grasses to grow.
This brings up a question another blogger lead me to:  Are we being self centered to worry so much about invasive species? All species were invasives at one time in their evolution. Is it just a romantic attachment to the "good ol' days" that makes us want to protect "native" plant species? Right now I still am on the side of protection from invasive plants, but it is a good question to ponder.
The burning done on the grasslands of The Badlands was very controlled.  In its wake we observed pear cactus that appeared to be killed in the fire, but actually the cactus survives the fire and thrives as a native of the area.
In this cropped photo with the exposure lightened you can see the lighter brown dots throughout the burned area.  These are the pear cactus plants

We spent a good day traveling through this land, enjoying the information center, talking to rangers and observing the work of nature carving through rock.
I am thankful for the park's creation as I am thankful for the creation of this particular environment. 
Yes, it is harsh. Yes it is stark. Yes it is a far cry from the jungle-like environment of the Appalachians, but bad? I think not.
These were Good Lands.


mary said...

Nelle, very informative. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The impact by invasive species on homogenizing and reducing diversity of natural communities is well documented. If preserving some semblance of the diversity that once existed in this country is at all important, then yes we should worry about invasives.

Awesome photo series!