Buttes, bluebirds and bison

WATFORD CITY – It has everything you’d expect from a National Park – wildlife, scenery, history and unique geologic features. Welcome to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

What is commonly known simply as “the North Unit” is the portion of the divided T.R. National Park located approximately 15 miles south of Watford City. The southern portion of the park is located adjacent to highly traveled Interstate Highway 94 near Medora and annually hosts thousands more visitors than the more remote North Unit. The main park is considerably larger than the North Unit, but not necessarily more pristine.

“Animals that want less contact with people are likely to find a greater degree of isolation in the North Unit,” said Bill Whitworth, TRNP chief of resource management. “There’s fewer people visiting the North Unit. That, and more wilderness, tends to attract animals that don’t like human contact.”

The section of the park located near Medora benefits from the nearby Interstate and from the lure of Medora’s Old West appearance. There’s also the Chateau de Mores, where the dashing Marquis Demores once lived with his wife Medora, and the Burning Hills Amphitheater where nightly musicals accompanied by pitchfork fondues greet guests by the thousands each summer.

The North Unit is located about 70 miles to the north. Midway between the two parks, well off the beaten path, is the cabin-site of Theodore Roosevelt’s famed Elkhorn Ranch. Visitors familiar with Roosevelt’s history in the Badlands marvel at the surrounding terrain that remains similar to what the 26th President of the United States experienced during his time on the ranch in early North Dakota.

Today U.S. Highway 85 passes by the eastern edge of the North Unit. Once a seldom-traveled roadway, it now carries a nearly steady flow of traffic generated by the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota. The distinctive whine of tires is carried well within the park boundaries by the acoustically friendly buttes of the Badlands.

Inside the North Unit, the gentle notes of the songbird and cry of the coyote competes with almost constant sounds from the distant highway. It presents a vivid contrast of two very different worlds – an odd mixture of a pristine environment clashing with progress.

The lure of the North Unit for many has always been its remoteness. Not only for people, but also for wildlife.

“An example would be that there is a better bighorn sheep population in the North Unit,” stated Whitworth. “The south has some bighorns passing through rather than residents.”

A big difference for the bighorns is that there are fewer people visiting the North Unit than the South Unit. Even though the South Unit is much larger than the North Unit and the habitat appears very similar, there are some subtle differences that are very appealing to bighorn sheep.

“There’s a little bit broader of a gradient in the North Unit from high elevation to low elevation,” explained Whitworth. “Also, two-thirds of the North Unit is designated as wilderness.”

Indeed, bighorn sheep covet high ground where they can bear their lambs and view the approach of predators. The valleys below have value too, often providing excellent browse for bighorns.

Two major predators in the North Unit are coyotes and mountain lions. While the coyote always seems to be present, the mountain lion is much more cryptic and far less likely to be seen or heard. Several sightings of mountain lions have occurred in and near the North Unit in recent years. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is currently engaged in a study involving fitting mountain lions with radio transmitter collars so that they can learn more about the behavior of the big cats in the region.

The two most visible species of animals in the North Unit are the mule deer and the bison, or buffalo. White-tailed deer are also known to frequent the lower sections of the park, particularly along the reaches of the Little Missouri River.

An icon of the Old West, the mule deer is well suited for life in the rugged buttes of the Badlands. The mule deer’s hooves make easy work of traversing the slopes and clay of the Badlands. Coloration is vital too. The drab gray appearance of the mule deer blends in very well with the varying hues common to Badlands terrain.

Like the mule deer, perhaps even more so, the burly buffalo represents a link to past history of the West. Once numbering in the millions, there are now relatively few found in unique settings such as the North Unit. Survivors to be sure, with a distinct ability to withstand the hottest summers and the coldest winters. They are one of the most remarkable animals found anywhere.

A much smaller and far more colorful attraction is the bluebird. Both the Mountain and Eastern bluebirds are known to migrate through the Badlands each spring. Some choose to nest there and raise their young.

“It means we’ve got some good habitat for Mountain bluebirds,” said Whitworth. “How the birds migrate through depends on regional patterns. Different species come through at different times.”

If they arrive, bluebirds usually do so within a few days of Easter, bringing with them a vivid splash of color to a landscape that has yet to awaken from the cold of winter. The bluebirds also bring with them the promise that warm days of spring cannot be very far behind.

“This is a good time of year to see things. They are a little more visible now,” said Whitworth. “Something always pops up that you don’t expect.”

There is a never a bad time to experience what the T.R. North Unit has to offer. Comments left on a writing pad at a hiking trailhead in the North Unit reflect that visitors are struck by what they had seen – “beautiful,” “awesome,” “majestic.”

Theodore Roosevelt would agree.