Custer State Park

February 21-23, 2008
[Photos]

The Black Hills is one of those summer tourist destinations. If you go there in winter, you likely are packing skis or a snowmobile. But last week I thought it would be a good idea to make the drive across the state and see if I could improve on the results I got on a wildlife photo trip through Custer State Park last September.

Bison Disagreement
Bison Disagreement

Back then the bison and pronghorn were scarce. I got close to a couple of lone bull bison, but for some reason herds were staying several hundred yards from the road. There were three pronghorns I got close to a couple times, but that was about it for that species. This time was different.

On Thursday after making the drive across the state, I had a couple of hours to see what I could find before sunset. There were hundreds of bison in several groups and dozens of pronghorn all along the Wildlife Loop. Toward sunset I was with a bison herd getting shots of them settling down for the evening. I've seen the videos of touristas getting thrown 20 feet in the air by bison, so even though I was 50 yards away I was shooting from inside the car. I noticed one of the bison was heading directly toward me. It wasn't charging, but it was "striding purposefully." From the size of the horns I think it was a youngster.

I rolled up my window to keep him from poking his head through. But he was headed for my front fender. He pressed his nose up against it for 15 seconds, as if he expected something to happen. Perhaps his mother had resembled a tannish '94 Camry and he was hoping for milk. Anyway, he eventually backed off, looking a bit confused, and wandered back to the herd.

Rocky Mountain Bighorn
Rocky Mountain Bighorn

Further convincing me that it was a good idea to stay inside the car were several jousting matches between bison. With their short horns it would seem to be difficult to get leverage on an opponent, but they tried. It seemed almost as if they were doing it just for practice, but one matchup was rather intense and continued on for quite a while.

Friday was my full day of shooting. I did a lap around the Wildlife Loop and then headed south to Wind Cave National Park to get some prairie dog images. There are huge praire dog towns around Wind Cave, and my tactic is to find a spot where the burrows are on a hill next to the road so I'm shooting from the car level or up at the prairie dogs.

Pronghorn
Pronghorn

After lunch in Hot Springs, I headed back to Custer State Park to hunt for bighorn sheet. I figured they would be in the high country up by Sylvan Lake. That turned out not to be a productive idea. The thought entered my mind that even if there were sheep in the area, the forest was so thick that it sighting them would be unlikely. As I was headed back south to see some more bison and pronghorns, I was muttering, "If there are bighorns in the Black Hills I'm never going to find them." A few minutes later I rounded a corner and had to brake for a flock of 11 sheep, including one ram with the big horns. I think they were licking salt off the road. They hung around for quite a while, eventually crossing the road. The ram was trailing, so I had time to set up and get a good image of his jump over the rail. After that first-time experience, I chased around the bison and pronhorns for the rest of the day and a few hours the following morning before heading home.

There are disadvantages to visiting the southern Black Hills in winter. A lot of local businesses are closed, so lodging and dining options are limited. The golden light of sunset provided some color, but with very little snow on the ground, almost everything is a shade of brown. If you look at the photos on this page, they look almost sepia toned. But maybe the reason the bison, pronghorns and sheep were along the roads is there is very little traffic through the park to disturb them. Just some jerk in a '94 Camry.

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All photos 1998- by Thomas O'Neil