Saturday, August 29, 2009

Custer State Park, South Dakota

While vertigo interfered with my appreciation of the vistas along the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, I wouldn't want to be driving any other car.  The Prius hugged the narrow road - and by using the "b" (engine brake) gear and keeping my foot off the accelerator, I got more than 70 MPG on the downhill ride to Custer State Park's "Wildlife Loop."

It was white-knuckle all the way down for me.  By the time we reached the bottom of the byway, I swore I'd never drive a mountain road again.   I was more than ready for a no-stress, leisurely ride around Custer State Park.

And that's exactly what we got.  Just a mile or so on the Wildlife Loop, we had our first and totally unexpected close encounter of the hoofed kind:  feral burros.

Not to be confused with the mule and horse, the burro (also known as "donkey") is a domesticated African wild ass (Equus asinus). 

What are they doing in Custer State Park?

A park ranger patiently explained that in the 1920’s a local man brought in these beasts of burden to carry tourists up Mt. Harney.  When his business failed during the Depression, he walked away - leaving his burros to run loose.  

It's their progeny harassing tourists today.  (The State Park keeps the burro population under control by selling surplus animals at their annual bison auction.)

These brazen creatures are the cause of many a "traffic backup" along the Wildlife Loop.  Despite the official park DON'T FEED THE ANIMALS policy, many visitors just can't resist sharing their road food.  As members of the horse family, burros have been known to bite and kick, so we followed the rules.  We kept our hands, carrots and apples to ourselves.

We were looking for birds:  Black-billed Magpies, Gray Jays and Pinyon Jays.  But birdlife was scarce.  Had to be the time of day.   We did however, see turkey vultures everywhere, in the air and perched along the roadside (patiently waiting for a lull in the traffic so they could access roadkill).

We got great close-to-the-Prius views of the charismatic megafauna of America's grasslands - Pronghorn, Bison and Prairie Dogs - loafing and feeding in the late afternoon.  But we did not see the second fastest land mammal "pronking" (leaping into the air by lifting all four feet off the ground simultaneously).  No Bison rutting and wallowing.   Not a peep out of the normally loquacious Prairie Dogs.  

By the time we arrived at the Comfort Inn in Custer (around 5pm), I was ready for the hot tub.

Antilocapra americana 

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