Badlands National Park Wildlife: Where to See Iconic Animal Species in the Park & Key Wildlife Safety

by Jon D. B.

Learn more about the species you’ll spot, where to find them, and corresponding safety in Outsider’s guide to Badlands National Park wildlife.

Badlands isn’t the most inviting moniker, nor does it sound like a place teeming with life. And yet the national park is home to some of the most diverse and fascinating ecosystems of the American West.

If you’re interested in wildlife specifically, Badlands National Park has a lot to offer. From micro to megafauna, the varied Badlands landscape is home to some of America’s most iconic animals like bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and yes, rattlesnakes.

Below, we’ll hit the park’s keystone species and where you’re most likely to encounter them. But remember, coming across animals of any kind during your visit means encountering wildlife – emphasis on the wild. Always give wild animals the respect and space they deserve. It can save both their life and yours (not to mention some hefty legal and/or financial ramifications if you break park regulations), which is exactly why we’re including crucial park wildlife safety information in each section.

Where to See Bison in Badlands National Park

North American bison in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. (Photo by Köhn/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Badlands National Park is well within the historic native range of North American bison. But as many an Outsider knows, the majority of the species was wiped off the earth by early American settlers. Bison had to be reintroduced as a result, and didn’t return to the Badlands until 1963. That year, a source herd from Theodore Roosevelt National Park was used to populate Badlands.

Bison Safety:

Today, Badlands National Park’s herd consists of around 1,200 head of bison. Park staff encourages guests to keep an eye out for bison, America’s national mammal. But they also request visitors remember these are wild, dangerous animals – and to treat them as such.

Maintain a distance of 100 feet whenever possible and do not provoke bison. These animals can cause severe injuries or even deaths if angered.

Badlands National Park

Where to See Bighorn Sheep in Badlands National Park

South Dakota: Full curl bighorn sheep resting atop roadside hill in Badlands National Park. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Just 300-years-ago, it’s believed around 2 million bighorn sheep roamed North America. The Westward Expansion of European emigrants, however, would plummet their populations to a total of about 20,000 by 1940.

According to Badlands National Park’s wildlife officials, this was caused by changes in land use, hunting for sport, and susceptibility to disease. Today, however, conservationists thankfully defend the species and grow their numbers alongside the National Park Service.

Thanks to numerous programs over the 20th and 21st centuries, Badlands is now home to about 250 bighorn of the total 80,000 U.S. bighorn sheep today.

Bighorn Safety:

While not considered a deadly threat like bison, bighorn sheep are still wild animals that require distance from humans. Park regulations require visitors to keep a 100-foot distance from park wildlife at all times, including bighorns. These are large, fast, and incredibly strong sheep that require the respect all potentially dangerous wildlife deserve.

Spotting Prairie Dogs in Badlands National Park

Prairie dogs rest in Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. (Photo by: Sharpshooters/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A larger, more plump relative of the squirrel family, prairie dogs populate Badlands National Park as some of its most plentiful wildlife. Specifically, the black-tailed prairie dog builds towns, or colonies, within.

Old American writings – from classic songs to novels and poems – mention prairie dogs with great abundance. This is because, at one time, scientists believe an astounding 5 billion prairie dogs populated the American plains alone. Tens of thousands of prairie dogs could exist in one shared colony alone. But as The Westward Expansion took hold, they became pest #1 for ranchers, farmers, and homesteaders.

Regarded as vermin, European settlers killed prairie dogs in large quantities with poison and recreational shooting, until their numbers dwindled to 5% of what they used to be. And as a keystone species of the Badlands, their survival remains as important now as ever.

Prairie Dog Safety:

As Badlands National Park states, “Prairie dogs face many challenges” among their wildlife. As a visitor to the park, NPS officials ask the following:

Please do not feed the prairie dogs. Prairie dogs have sensitive stomachs and cannot process human foods. Please do not attempt to touch or pet the prairie dogs. These animals can bite and many of them still carry the plague. For your health and for prairie dog health, please respect our prairie dog towns.

Badlands National Park

Prairie Rattlesnake Safety in Badlands National Park

A young Prairie Rattlesnake (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Identifying Prairie Rattlesnakes: The only venomous snake in South Dakota, the prairie rattlesnake is plentiful in the Badlands and resides throughout the park. Adults range in size from 3 to 5-feet-long. Spot them by their triangular head and body covered in dark blotches which gradually turn into rings as they near the tail.

To Avoid Rattlesnake Bites: “Keep a keen eye and ear out while hiking,” the park says. “Prairie rattlesnakes often seek out spots where they are well-hidden and can be found under thick prairie grasses or in shaded badlands formations. One of the best ways to prevent a bite is to give these animals plenty of space and not try to handle them. Bites are more likely to happen if you provoke or attempt to catch a rattlesnake.”

Like all rattlesnakes, the species is venomous and bites can result in severe illness/injury or death. Help minimize your chances of an encounter in Badlands National Park by heeding the following:

  • Prairie rattlesnakes typically hide during the day but seek shade under boardwalks, stairs, and tall grasses
  • Do not place your hands and feet in areas you cannot see, such as crevices and overhangs
  • Listen for their warning rattle and back away from their location slowly
  • At night, rattlesnakes warm themselves on paved roads

If a rattlesnake bites you, call 911 immediately. While you await emergency assistance, the USDA’s breakdown of what to do and not do lists imperative knowledge. Know before you go.

Other Iconic Wildlife of Badlands National Park

Many other keystone species roam the Badlands, but are less commonplace. These include:

  • Pronghorn, which is not an antelope, but rather the last existing antilocapridae mammal in the world
  • Golden eagles, the largest eagle species found North America
  • Black-footed ferrets, an endangered species the park fights to protect

And if birding is your fancy, over 206 species of birds are among Badlands National Park wildlife.

Keep a sharp eye out for each species above! For more ways to plan a safe trip to the Badlands, see our Badlands National Park Safety: Right Gear & Knowledge for Tackling Rugged Badlands Trip next.