With my 44-year association with South Dakota, I have gotten to observe the many differences in species from that part of the country to ours. The Dakotas are part of the Great Plains, an area once covered by prairie grasses and not trees. That is by far the most noticeable difference, but when you start to dig a little deeper the less conspicuous non-Indiana plants such as crested wheatgrass, lead plant, buck brush, and sage fill the prairie.
The wildlife variations are even more unique. Yes, they do have cotton-tail rabbits but they also have jackrabbits. In fact, the South Dakota State University mascot is a jackrabbit. Their main rival South Dakota University has a coyote as their mascot. An animal that I can hear announcing their presence, nightly, around my Indiana house.
That area of the country is well known for its rattlesnakes. Back when I was in college in South Dakota, I had just finished watching a parade when I was invited into a downstairs apartment by some guys I knew. They were talking about their rattlesnake adventures and said they had some snakes. Fully expecting something fake to jump out at me, they dumped a burlap sack with five rattlesnakes into a big garbage can. They were not fake. Consequently, I didn’t stay long.
One animal I guess I can't say I have run into is the porcupine. I never recall seeing one but the tire sidewalls of a relative's car were filled with quills. I always wondered if that was a near miss or the animal's last desperate act.
Desperate would describe my wife’s sister's dog that had 5 quills stuck in its nose. It had gotten too close to a porcupine and suffered the consequences. This dog was very people shy so it took a while to catch it. After suffering for the better part of a day, it was finally caught and I had to use a pair of plyers for plucking the quills from its nose. The dog did not like the process but was greatly relieved in the end.
Wild turkeys are now a part of our agriculture landscape in Indiana after being missing since around the year 1900. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, between 1956 and 2004, wild trapped birds were released around the state. Wild turkeys are now found in all 92 counties. Spring density over most of Indiana ranges from 1 to 14 birds per square mile, with an average of 4 birds per square mile in recent years.
Walking one cold frosty winter morning near the Dakota cattle feed yard, I spied several turkeys roosting in a tree. I took their picture and years later in a conversation with a wildlife specialist, I mentioned seeing these turkeys. After looking at the picture, I was told they were not the eastern wild turkey historically found in Indiana but another closely related species, the Merriam turkey.
Probably the most despised species by ranchers is the prairie dog. Prairie dogs are stocky burrowing rodents that live in colonies called “towns.” French explorers called them “little dogs” because of the barking noise they make.
Prairie dogs are social animals that live in towns of up to 1,000 acres with 30 to 50 burrow entrances per acre. They primarily eat grass and can lay the ground bare within their towns.
Because of their unwantedness, most ranchers are receptive to out-of-state prairie dog hunters that frequent the area. One of the reasons for their disdain comes from the potential of a horse stepping in a hole and breaking a leg.
Prairie dogs have flea problems. Last summer I lay down on the grass in an area of prairie dogs. Several days later I came up with multiple flea bites on my torso.
Prairie dogs are susceptible to a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. You may know it better by the name, Black Plague. I can say that I am lucky that the town did not have disease issues, but their fleas knew how to bite. Luckily, my grave marker will not say “Done in by the bubonic plaque.”
Purdue Extension Educator, ANR
The Merriam turkeys roosting in trees overlooking a feedlot in South Dakota.
Photo provided by Mark Kepler