Prairie critters (former and current)

It's all about the rocks

Here at Prairie Smoke Ranch we are situated atop the Missouri Coteau, these rolling hills and potholes are home to a variety of prairie critters. But unlike a suburban neighborhood, our neighborhood changes with each passing year.

Night-time white-tailed buck on camera

We are in a dry spell now, a no-spit, dust-up-your-nose, gritty-neck-crease dry spell. And so the mule deer are here. We have permanent residents to be sure: coyotes and badgers and Franklin’s ground squirrels and ducks and geese and sharptails. But when it gets dry, the whitetails around these parts share their landscape with mulies. And when it gets really dry the antelope move east as well.

Two bull elk called our north pasture home for a little while, but they just seemed lost, likely having wandered from the 30,000 acre Lonetree State Wildlife Area to our east.   But in truth, elk belong on the prairie as much as the next ungulate, and spanned the continent prior to settlement.

Moose are surprisingly common, more so I think in wet years. We marveled at a small bull which walked through our yard several Octobers ago. Only he knew where he was going.

We have occasional wolves, and recently a much celebrated wolverine in the state, but they are rare. We don’t see bears here, blacks or grizzlies although blacks make their homes east and west of us. Lewis and Clark’s expedition shot a grizzly in 1805 near Mandan, but we only go down there now for tires. And we haven’t seen any bears when getting new skins on the Silverado.

Perhaps the greatest loss was the bison. The wild bison, formed, molded and shaped perfectly to survive and thrive in North Dakota over thousands of years is gone from our prairie. Skulls and bones left behind have long since been collected and lost to time. The Metis’, a collection of mixed breed residents along the Canadian border traveled to our area to hunt bison each year in the 1800s. I can see their hunting grounds from our church in Butte. Maybe one could still find a bison skull or femur hidden in the stubborn coulees of the actual butte. But the bison are gone.

We are fortunate to own native pasture, that is, pasture that has never been planted or plowed. This is solely due to a happy circumstance where glaciers took a break, and dumped their billions of tons of gravel, rock, boulders and other glacial detritus dragged down from Canada and other far-flung reaches onto our North Dakota pasture. And then they left, or melted. At any rate the glaciers are no longer here. But the rocks are. And so the ground is untillable lest entire generations of family members make removal of such glacial leavings a priority.

In practice, rock grubbing works for a motivated generation or two (when survival is at stake) but then loses its luster. Subsequent generations would rather play baseball or take in picture shows than pick rock.

And so we have native pasture.

Bluewing and Greenwing Teal wings

Which brings us back to native wildflowers and forbs – prairie smoke, coneflower, ground plum, crocus, blazing star, prairie lilies. And birds, like our ducks and upland plovers and avocets and grasshopper sparrows and sharptails. Without a glacial pause, many of these species would not have taken up residence here.

All the more reason duck hunters, sharptail chasers, flower pickers and birders should thank a glacier the next time they stub their toe on a well-placed rock while afield in North Dakota’s Coteau country.

The author is a former US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Department of Agriculture manager. In retirement he owns and operates Prairie Smoke Ranch, located in central North Dakota, the duck hunting hub of the northern plains. All rights reserved.

Hay time on the prairie
The only waterfowl load you will ever need!

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