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Spotting Spring’s Baby Animals
Springtime in South Dakota brings more than budding flora and greener pastures. When winter’s chill gives way to warmer weather in late March, the newest baby animals begin to venture out and explore the great place they call home. From the baby buffalo in Custer State Park in the west to the whitetail fawns of the central plains, take a trek across the state in search of South Dakota’s cuddliest critters.
Before they grow into the massive & majestic beasts that are so iconic in South Dakota, baby bison start out as little orange puffs of fur with knobby knees and faces that could—and will—melt your heart. One of the best places to spot these adorable calves and their impressive parents is in Custer State Park in western South Dakota. Here, approximately 1,300 wild bison roam freely across more than 71,000 open acres. As with most things in nature, it’s impossible to predict when the first baby bison will be born in Custer State Park. However, late March/early April is usually the time the first little one appears. Past dates have included April 5th (2019), March 22nd (2018) and April 4th (2017), so visiting in early April increases your chance of seeing some of the adorable calves romping around with their powerful mothers.
Although they’re quite the rare sight to see in person, you can always tell a mountain goat kid by its permanent little grin and fluffy white coat. Only a small population of Rocky Mountain goats exists in western South Dakota, usually roaming in the areas surrounding Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Custer State Park, Spearfish Canyon and Crazy Horse Memorial.
Much like bighorn sheep, young mountain goats are natural-born climbers. After all, they’re literally born on steep cliff faces, where they will remain for the first few weeks of their life. Mountain goats are not only skilled at traversing extreme terrain, but they’re a tricky bunch too. In fact, the only reason that Rocky Mountain goats exist in South Dakota today is because a small group was imported from Canada to be kept in a zoo in Custer State Park in the 1920s. However, shortly after their arrival, the goats escaped into the Black Hills, where they’ve remained untamed ever since
Usually born one to a mother, the kids usally enter this world in late May and early June. Spotting a young one is rare, but the best places to see mountain goats in South Dakota are in Battle Creek running parallel to Highway 40 out of Keystone, while hiking Black Elk Peak, or in the mornings at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Good binoculars are recommended to scan rock outcroppings since a goat's hoof acts as a sort of suction cup that makes their climbing ability impressive.
Heading east to Badlands National Park, you’re likely to see little fuzzballs clinging to the area’s jutting cliffs and buttes during the first warm months of the year (usually beginning in May). These resilient little buggers aren’t wayward tumbleweeds, but rather the park’s newest generation of bighorn sheep. The young lambs and their headstrong parents can be found all across the Black Hills and Badlands region. They set up camp in the foothills, but never stray too far from the steep cliff faces they can run up with ease to avoid predators.
Bighorn sheep have had an interesting history in South Dakota. They were likely common in the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota before European settlement. Peter Norbeck—the man responsible for the creation of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway—arranged for eight Rocky Mountain bighorns to be brought from Canada and released into Custer State Park in 1922. The herd grew until a mysterious demise in the late 1950s, but efforts since then have reintroduced bighorns into the habitat.
Since lambs are known to follow their mothers for a year to learn their home range and behavior, there’s a good chance for visitors to spot them by exploring--especially on foot--Badlands National Park. Other ideal places to spot bighorn sheep include Custer State Park—especially along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway—and along Highway 16 by Jewel Cave.
Continuing farther east towards the Missouri River region and the wide-open plains, you’ll find some of the most adorable rumps you’ve ever seen. This little pronghorn antelope fawn may have some wobbly legs for the time being, but less than a month after being born, they’ll be bounding across the short grass prairies with the ease of a natural-born runner. Adult antelope can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. And the little tuft of hair on their tail isn’t just for looking cute. This hair will stand on end when they’re frightened, warning others in their herd of imminent danger.
At a young age, it can almost be hard to tell a whitetail deer apart from an antelope, but the giveaway is the deer’s signature white spots. In fact, a whitetail fawn has an average of three hundred spots on its coat just after it's born. Similar to antelope, whitetail deer are quick learners. They can typically stand and walk within just a half hour of birth and will be able to outrun most danger by the time they’re three weeks old. During the spring, whitetail can be found all across the state, particularly in wooded areas with nearby farmlands where they can graze and play.
In the Glacial Lakes and Prairies region of northeastern South Dakota, springtime brings baby birds by the boatloads. Mother ducks are known to build nests near bodies of water, such as Roy Lake near Sisseton and Lake Thompson near De Smet. The ducklings learn to swim shortly after they’re born. You’ll find groups of these feathered fluffballs following their mothers around in lakes and rivers all across the state, including the Missouri River and the many glacial lakes across northeastern South Dakota. The most common types of ducks are mallards and wood ducks.
Baby geese, known as goslings, look very similar to ducklings while they’re still young. About a month after the female goose lays her eggs (which can happen anywhere between March and June), four to 10 chicks use their tiny bills to break out of the eggs and enter this world. You’re likely to see Canada and Snow Geese, South Dakota’s most abundant kinds of geese, swimming around in the same bodies of water across South Dakota, especially at places like Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the sloughs and lakes in northeastern South Dakota. You’ll often see a mother-and-father pair swimming around with their gaggle of youngsters. You’d be hard-pressed to find a much cuter family portrait.