Field Trip to Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Wall, South Dakota: One of the Forest Service’s Little-Known Treasures

A recent Rocky Mountaineers (Forest Service retiree organization) annual gathering included a field trip to the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.  Wall, South Dakota is also the home of the National Grasslands Visitor Center that tells the story of the National Grasslands.. an important part of our country’s natural heritage.  For those of you who like field trips, you can get some of the fun without the travel. Travis Mason-Bushman (with the hat) and all those young people we met are outstanding at telling their stories and answering questions.   They are dedicated, committed, professional with a depth of knowledge and experience.   I know I can shuffle off this mortal coil and these folk will take care of the National Grasslands and Forests just fine.

One of the videos has some breathing at the beginning, which is distracting, but it goes away.

The story of the black-footed ferret recovery is very interesting, including how they are being managed to protect from disease, and their genetics.  The black-footed ferrets that are alive today in the United States come from a foundation of seven ferrets.There’s even a discussion in the video of using high-tech techiques.. cloning.. to increase genetic diversity.  Tissue samples of Willa, a captured ferret from Meeteetse, were cryopreserved when she passed away. They were thawed and used to produce a cloned ferret who was an exact clone of Willa. Unfortunately she (Elizabeth Ann) required surgery and cannot be bred.  If you’re interested, this from the Meeteetse Museums has all the juicy and technical details.   The mechanisms that organisms have to continue to live, thrive and survive small population sizes are not really understood.  Estimates of MVP are based on many assumptions of things we don’t know and don’t understand.  It’s a mysterious human process by which “best guess at this time” is transmuted into “scientists tell us” and then directly into policy.

This is the story of some dispersed recreation challenges the District has.  This area is adjacent to the Badlands National Park, which has limited camping, and camping has mushroomed.  While the District has little recreation funding or staff; they are doing what they can.


Travis does a great job, as always, explaining the history of the Grasslands.  I don’t see it exactly the same way, though.   Travis says something like “people determined that the land was best left alone” which I don’t think is how people thought in the 1930s.   They wanted to get vegetation back.. hence reseeding and shelterbelts, so that the land could be used for grazing.  The idea was also to show neighboring farmers better practices.

Here’s an example from a Pawnee National Grassland history:

The area along Crow Creek near Briggsdale was the first reclamation and demonstration plot in this area. Seventy acres of meadow improvement began with the construction of two dams and three diversion ditches to spread the flood water over the meadows and provide limited irrigation on other areas. Throughout the other acquired areas, existing fences were torn down, moved or new fences constructed to surround an economically manageable pasture. Springs were developed and wells dug. Windmills were erected and “catch basins” constructed to collect as much run-off water as possible. The policy was “no cow would have to go more than three-quarters of a mile for water.” The plowed and denuded lands were planted to mostly crested wheatgrass, an introduced species from Russia which is well adapted to our climate and is palatable to livestock. Trees were planted to form wind breaks and provide habitat for wildlife. Within two years, the planted grasses revegetated the plowed areas and grazing was allowed on a limited basis.


This was not accomplished without trials, anger and frustration. Attempts were made to have the land returned to private ownership, but were defeated. The deep-seated individualism of the westerner made it difficult for them to accept a change from the old ways. Successful demonstrations and evident restoration of the land occurred and gradually the new, proven methods of land management were accepted by most of the population, both association members and nonmembers.

One of the reasons I bring this up is that it reminds me of watershed restoration which seems agreed upon and in some senses easier than some of the ideas we have now about “ecological restoration” which requires, in some cases, attempting to bring back all the plants and animals that previously lived there (at the correct densities and age structures, but of course not the same genetics). “We don’t want dirt to blow away and we want vegetation to cover the soil, hopefully something edible for cows” is a water and soil based restoration.. and fast forwarding, if we were to focus on these basics (soil, water, and air) and let the plants and animals fall where they may, the work of restoration would be simpler. Then hydrologists and soil scientists would be in charge instead of economists, endangered species biologists, historic vegetation ecologists, or climate modellers. It would be an interesting thought experiment, anyway.

In researching this post, I ran across an interesting website called the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Many interesting topics to browse there, and here’s the entry for climate.

The Great Plains, therefore, has a large range in both annual and daily temperatures. During the midwinter months (January and February), when cold, dry air from central Canada dominates, temperatures are very cold, with mean temperatures varying from 40ºF across the Southern Plains to as low as 10ºF across the Canadian Prairies. During midsummer (July and August), when the Plains are dominated by either warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico or warm, dry air from the Southwest, mean temperatures increase to approximately 80ºF through the Southern Plains and approximately 66ºF across the Canadian Prairies. This gives the region a much larger range in annual temperature than is found elsewhere in North America. For example, the range in mean monthly temperature between January and July in Omaha, Nebraska, is approximately 56ºF, while in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and San Francisco, California (each at a similar latitude), the ranges are 46ºF and 14ºF respectively.


The year-to-year variability in temperature and precipitation across the Great Plains is very large. This variability is especially evident in the recurrent problem of drought. The very warm and often dry summer weather that is characteristic of the Plains leads to high evaporation and transpiration (water loss from plants) rates. Soils are often depleted of their moisture, leading to stressed natural and cultivated vegetation. A measure of the lack of available soil moisture for plants, the soil moisture deficit, has been calculated for the entire Great Plains region for the period 1895 through 1994. From this it is clear that the Plains as a whole has undergone recurrent periods of drought over the last century, especially during the 1930s (the Dust Bowl years) and the 1950s. The large annual (within one year) and interannual (year-to-year) variability of Great Plains climate makes the region a natural laboratory for studying the effects of climate variability on a host of problems associated with the interaction of humans with their environment.

Perhaps the people, animals and plants of the Great Plains have something to teach us about adapting to any changes in climate and climate variability.

13 thoughts on “Field Trip to Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Wall, South Dakota: One of the Forest Service’s Little-Known Treasures”

    • I was really impressed by the professionalism, dedication, commitment and depth of knowledge of all the young people we met. The Grasslands are in good hands!

  1. Good coverage of the field trip! I should have gotten myself out to Wall for that day! I actually worked at the USFS Shelterbelt Laboratory in Bottineau, ND before it closed down. I bet there are not many people that even know there was such a thing. Lots of lessons have been learned. Russian Olive was thought to be a good tree for shelterbelts at one time, until it spread everywhere and became a problem. Now we have Western Red Cedar taking over grasslands.

    In the late 1800’s, the railroads encouraged people to homestead in Western ND/Eastern Montana, telling them they could farm there. Thousands came and claimed their 160 acres. Then there was a drought and most did not make it. You cannot make it on 160 acres in the Western Great Plains. Some of the Nebraska NF near Chadron was abandoned homesteads.

    The Dust Bowl happened because people were tilling land that should have never been tilled. the drought happened and all of that bare dirt just blew away. No-till farming has helped considerably with that.

    I recently drove through the Pawnee Grasslands and was amazed at the large wind farms and lots of oil rigs. Of course, there are many oil rigs on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands in Western ND. Some of those are sad to see as they have cleared areas right in the middle of the beautiful Badlands. Teddy Roosevelt would be sad to see it.

    There are those now who complain about cows adding to climate change. I am glad that people can make a living running cows across the West. They are allowing those areas to remain in grasslands and who knows what they would be converted to otherwise?

    I love the Grasslands and am very glad that someone had the foresight to create National Grasslands!

  2. Democrat Travis fleeing red state South Dakota for Nevada proves he’s one smart cookie. Because of failures of Republicans to control invasive species like cheatgrass and Eastern red cedar the grassland fire danger index will be in the extreme category today for eastern Pennington County.

    • Hi Larry: I don’t know about McKay or Fulks, but I can verify that I have donated very little to this forum through the years — probably should be more. On the other hand, you have shown yourself to be a true Democrat — expecting everyone else to cover the costs of your own free speech. Very political of you. You’re welcome.

          • OK Robert. Fun that your ‘PhD’ and ‘research’ is worth more than anyone else’s that you denigrate. I agree, OSU is in a sad state, ever since you got your ‘PhD’ I suppose.
            You’ve never once respectfully responded to legitimate criticisms of your stance, just denigrating them. Must be fun.

            How’s the chip on your shoulder from the 1980/90’s working for all your stances? Science? Or just a chip on the shoulder.

            • What a coward you are. Hiding behind a fake name and publicly mocking real people. Perfectly willing to respond to criticisms from actual people — and always have — it’s just trolls like you that I dislike responding to. Because it only encourages more insults without repercussions. What a jerk and waste of time. Goodbye.

  3. If cattle grazing is the key to preventing wildfires in ranch country why are mostly Republican counties still suffering near daily high or even extreme grassland fire danger indices so often even during the winter?

    Before the European invasion Puebloans in what’s now northern New Mexico hunted bison on the high plains along the east slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and today Picuris is one of 76 tribal entities represented on the Rapid City, South Dakota-based InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC). In 2010 then-US Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) tried to make a portion of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland adjacent to Badlands National Park part of the Tony Dean Wilderness Area and in 2011 Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) revived the idea.

    Led by The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit that began buying land in that part of South Dakota in 2007, sold some of it to Badlands National Park in 2012. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Defenders of Wildlife and the Nature Conservancy teamed up with the National Park Foundation, Badlands Natural History Association, Badlands National Park Conservancy and the National Park Service Centennial Challenge fund to expand the bison range at Badlands National Park by nearly 35 square miles.

    These days only about 500,000 bison inhabit North America and less than 1 percent of their historic range, just 3 percent of the Earth’s land surface remains untouched by human development and a sixth mass extinction is underway.

    Now, after meeting with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during her visit to occupied South Dakota in October State Senator Troy Heinert’s name has been plastered all over the national news for his work with the ITBC to restore the American Bison to tribal communities in the West.
    American Prairie (APR) near Malta in north-central Montana got its first bison from Wind Cave National Park in 2005. The group hopes to have native animals grazing on some 5000 square miles or about 3.2 million acres of private land including 63,000A. in Phillips County connected with corridors to federal land owned by the Bureau of Land Management and to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Total land including the purchase of 34 ranches is as big as the State of Connecticut or the size of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks combined.

    Nearby APR is the Fort Belknap Reservation where the Nakoda and the Aaniiih manage a range with more than a thousand bison so building a tourist destination helps economic development for the entire region.

    Just a hundred and fifty years ago bison, wapiti, bighorn sheep, pronghorns and deer cleared the grasses driving western South Dakota’s fire years. If grasses remained in the fall tribes burned the rest.

    91% of fire departments in my home state are staffed by volunteers in a state where old Republicans are giving up the ghost yet Mrs. Noem is boasting she has recruited some 600 white supremacists to be cops but won’t commit to prescribing burns or bolstering fire departments.

    So, one solution to national forest and grasslands management woes is to move the US Forest Service from the US Department of Agriculture into Interior where Indigenous American nations could more easily assume additional responsibilities for stewardship on public land and be provided the resources to apply cultural fire to their own holdings.

    The South Dakota Democratic Party should advocate for paying the tribes and settling the Black Hills Claim, dissolving the Black Hills National Forest, moving management of the land from the US Department of Agriculture into the Department of Interior in cooperation with Bureau of Indian Affairs Division of Forestry and Wildfire Management. Mato Paha (Bear Butte), the associated national grasslands and the Sioux Ranger District of the Custer/Gallatin National Forest should be included in the move.

    Rewild it and rename it Paha Sapa or He Sapa National Monument eventually becoming part of the Greater Missouri Basin National Wildlife Refuge connecting the CM Russell Wildlife Refuge in Montana along the Missouri River to Oacoma, South Dakota combined with corridors from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon in the north and south to the Pecos River through Nebraska, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

    Sen. Heinert did not seek reelection to the fiendish, malevolent and Earth hating South Dakota Legislature so he can continue this essential work.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading