Mountain Goat

Viewing Wildlife in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Elk, bison, deer, bighorn sheep and more await your arrival

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The variety of landscapes and ecosystems in South Dakota makes for a pretty amazing amount of wildlife viewing opportunities. Your chances to spot buffalo and bighorn sheep are best in the Black Hills, especially around Custer State Park or on the Wildlife Loop, but there are opportunities to spot antelope, deer, a variety of birds and more across the state. Read on for what you can see — and where you can see them — in the open plains and stunning hills of South Dakota. For a fun & engaging online wildlife lesson for kids, click here.

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Whatever name you use, these lumbering beasts are some of the most popular sights in South Dakota. You can find free-roaming herds of America’s national mammal at Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, and Wind Cave National Park, but a guaranteed way to spot the entire herd is the annual Buffalo Roundup. Should you come upon them in the wild, keep your distance and do not get out of your vehicle. They are seemingly gentle but deceptively fast and dangerous, so they’re best enjoyed from a safe distance.

Elk Wind Cave National Park
Mule Deer

Elk, Antelope & Deer

While whitetail deer can be found all across South Dakota, elk and antelope are mainly found in western South Dakota. It’s not unusual to see any of them bounding along an open field in western South Dakota, but Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park are excellent places to spot them.



These wily animals are pretty secretive, moving mostly from dusk to dawn. That makes them hard to spot, but you can sometime hear them after dark on the open prairies. To keep populations under control, it’s legal to hunt coyotes. Most coyote hunting happens in the western two-thirds of South Dakota. For more information on hunting coyote and other predators, click here.

Prairie Dogs

Prairie Dogs and Black-Footed Ferrets

What Lewis & Clark called “barking squirrels” are now known as prairie dogs. They’re adorable and pretty social, with colonies set up across the western two-thirds of the state. Two favorite spots to see the critters are in or near Badlands National Park: Roberts Prairie Dog Town (located approximately five miles from the Pinnacles/Wall entrance of Badlands National Park) and Prairie Homestead (21070 SD Highway 240, Philip).  The elusive & endangered black-footed ferret also make their home at Roberts Prairie Dog Town, but they’re far shyer than their prairie dog neighbors.

Bluebird South Dakota
Dipper bird


The Black Hills serves as a meeting ground for many eastern and western bird species, making it a birdwatcher’s paradise. See some of the 200+ species — including more than 20 rare or endangered species — in Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, Spearfish Canyon, Wind Cave National Park, Bear Butte State Park and along the Mickelson Trail. Click here for more on birdwatching in the Black Hills.


Beavers, porcupine, foxes & more

There’s a wide variety of “varmints” and others in the area. Beavers stick to areas near water sources and can sometimes be spotted swimming in water near dawn or dusk. Porcupines enjoy chewing the bark off tree branches while red fox are active from dusk till’ dawn but difficult to spot. Raccoons are nocturnal and often found in areas near water.

Wild turkeys

Wild Turkeys

Wild turkeys can be found – and sometimes heard – in the Black Hills as well as woodland areas across the state. You’ll immediately notice their bright red wattles – the bumpy skin that seems to hang from their neck – that act as a sort of “mood ring” (bright red is used to attract a mate, blue means the turkey is scared) but keep an eye out for their white-tipped feathers that often have bronze or purple reflections.

mountain lions

Mountain Lions

Because mountain lions—also called cougars, pumas, and panthers — are both nocturnal and sneaky, it’s rare to see one in the wild. If you do come across one, do not run away! Check out the safety tips at the bottom of this page to make sure you stay safe should you have an unlikely mountain lion encounter.

Mountain Goat
Mountain Goat

Mountain Goats

Mountain goats are not native to South Dakota, but they seem right at home in the rocky Black Hills. Most goats in the Black Hills descend from a group of six that escaped from then-open Custer State Park Zoo in the 1920s. You can find these nimble climbers scaling the side of Mount Rushmore, especially if you come during morning hours.


Reptiles and Amphibians

South Dakota is home to a variety of frogs, toads, salamanders and lizards. While 16 species of snake can be found in the state, you’re most likely to see the non-venomous plains garter snake. Prairie rattlesnakes also live here. They are non-aggressive but venomous, so exercise caution while hiking in certain areas. If you want to check a lot of boxes off your wildlife checklist, don’t miss Reptile Gardens, home the world’s largest reptile zoo and more than 1,000 animals.

bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep

These magnificent beasts have a long and storied history in South Dakota. They are often spotted in the Black Hills, especially Custer State Park and its Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway, and in Badlands National Park.

burros donkeys custer state park


Custer State Park’s “beggin’ burros” are some of the Black Hills’ most popular residents thanks to their friendly nature and predisposition for snacks. You’re likely to meet a few of them along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Park rules prohibit feeding any wildlife in the park, so please use good judgement and understand the potential risks of interactions with the burros.

Be Safe!

While hiking, you may encounter wild turkeys, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, deer, elk, coyote and other wildlife. Most of these are harmless but please exercise caution and, of course, do not feed any of the wildlife you might encounter.


While they may appear mild-mannered at a distance, these beasts are dangerous. Do not approach or get too close. Bison can run faster than 30 mph and inflict fatal wounds with their horns. You may end up getting an up-close and personal look at the bison from your car in places like Custer State Park. If so, enjoy the view from the safety of your vehicle. Do not exit your vehicle or roll down your window.

Mountain Goats
Mountain Goats

They may be cute, but that doesn’t mean they want to be friends. Do not approach or get too close to mountain goats. Keep at least 50 yards away. If a mountain goat approaches, slowly move away to maintain a safe distance. In the unlikely event that it continues to approach, chase it off by yelling, waving a piece of clothing, or throwing rocks.


These snakes aren’t looking for trouble, but they’ll be quick to warn you if they’re threatened. If you hear their warning rattle, use your eyes & ears to determine the snake’s location and slowly back away from their location.  Rattlesnakes are likely to hide in shady spaces during the day. Do not place your hands or feet in areas that you cannot see, such as in tall grass, under boardwalks & stairs, or in crevices and overhangs.

Mountain Lion
Mountain Lions

Should you have a rare encounter with a mountain lion, do not run away! Stay calm and either hold your ground or back away slowly while facing the lion and standing upright. If a mountain lion moves in your direction or acts aggressively, try to appear larger by raising your arms and, if you are wearing one, opening your jacket. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice. These actions are designed to convince the mountain lion that a) you're not prey and b) you may be a danger to the lion. If the mountain lion continues to approach you, throw stones, branches and whatever else you can reach. It's also a good idea to never hike alone and always keep children close to you. Again, the chances of encountering a mountain lion are rare, but it's always best to be safe and prepared.

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