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