Mammals of Northwestern South Dakota
by Kenneth W. Andersen and J. Knox Jones
Mammals of Northwestern South Dakota – The mammalian fauna of the western Dakotas and adjacent Montana is poorly known. Few published reports have dealt with mammals from this part of the Northern Great Plains, and none of this involved detailed study of a restricted area.
The present report summarizes information gathered in Harding County, northwestern South Dakota, and includes material on the more than 50 species of mammals that are known to occur there.
Harding County has an area of approximately 2700 square miles (Fig. 1). The county first was organized in 1881, but the present boundaries were not fixed until 1908.
Physiographical, it lies in that part of the Missouri Plateau frequently termed the “Cretaceous Table Lands.” The general topography is one of rolling hills and flats–mostly range land vegetated by short grasses and sage–broken by spectacular buttes and hills that rise 400 to 600 or more feet above the surrounding plains.
These monadnocks are “… part of a system of Tertiary erosional remnants standing above the Late Cretaceous rocks of northwestern South Dakota…,” according to Lillegraven (1970:832), who went on to point out: “The butte tops are flat and grass covered.
The western sides are being actively cut away by slumping, and the topography below the western cliff walls is hummocky with sparse vegetation. The eastern flanks of the tables are, by contrast, less cliff-forming and less slumped and are generally well forested with coniferous and deciduous trees.”
Slim Buttes, the North and South Cave Hills, the East and West Short Pine Hills, and the Long Pine Hills, which barely enter the county north of Camp Crook, comprise the pine-clad buttes; other prominences, such as Table Mountain and Sheep Buttes, are all but nude of coniferous cover. The highest point in the county, “Harding Peak,” is 4019 feet above sea level.
Sediments underlying northwestern South Dakota include rocks assignable to the Pierre (shale), Fox Hills (sand), and Hell Creek formations of Cretaceous age and the Ludlow and Tongue River formations of the Paleocene.
These rocks may be exposed at the surface, but usually are overlain by relatively thin soils that are mostly derived from them; the best soil in the county for agricultural purposes is the loessal sandy or silty loam in the northeastern quarter, which is derived from Tongue River sediments (Baker, 1952).
The climate of northwestern South Dakota is characteristic of the northern part of the interior grasslands of North America–that is, the winters are cold and the summers hot and dry.
Weather data for the period 1896-1967 at Camp Crook are representative of those gathered at the several stations maintained in the county.
At Camp Crook the mean temperature for January is 17.3 F, whereas that for July is 71.2 F; precipitation averages 13.17 inches annually, most falling in the months of April through September; snowfall amounts to an average of 33.2 inches per year and is recorded from every month from September through May (Climatogeography of the United States, no. 20-39, Camp Crook, South Dakota, 1969).
Major surface drainage systems in Harding County include the Little Missouri River, which flows northward through most of the western part of the county, the South Fork of the Grand River, which originates in the east-central part of the county and flows generally eastward, and by the North Fork of the Moreau River, which originates in the south and drains in a southeasterly direction. Permanent standing surface water was virtually unknown prior to the development of artificial impoundments.
Vegetation of the grassland areas in the county is typical of that found throughout the semi-arid Northern Great Plains. Cover on upland soils, especially those that are clayey in substance, generally is sparse; areas along water courses and well-watered sites elsewhere tend to have denser stands of grasses such as bluestem (_Andropogon_).
Dominant grasses of upland are gramma, buffalo grass, wheat grass, stipa, and tickle grass. Sage (_Artemisia_) and numerous forbs are prominent in many areas. These grasslands are used extensively for grazing sheep and cattle.
The wooded buttes mentioned above are at least in part within the boundaries of Custer National Forest and support western yellow pine (_Pinus ponderosa_) and junipers (_Juniperus_ sp.).
In some ravines and other protected sites there are groves of deciduous trees such as cottonwood, aspen, boxelder, ash, hackberry, elm, dogwood, and hawthorn, usually associated with shrubs such as buckbrush, chokeberry, plum, currant, and gooseberry.
These groves frequently are associated with small springs, as the one in Deer Draw of the Slim Buttes. The major water courses and their tributaries are essentially treeless, although occasional stands of cottonwoods and other deciduous trees and shrubs occur in some places–for example along the Little Missouri near Camp Crook. Some representative habitats in Harding County are illustrated in Figs. 2-8.
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