Spectatular beauty within four hours drive of home
WORTHINGTON -- Does it take an airplane ride or a really long drive to see something totally spectacular? It really depends on what you think qualifies as totally spectacular. I took a four-hour drive and saw something very spectacular -- the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, located across the Missouri River in South Dakota.
The reason for my trip to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands was to get my new puppy into some hunting opportunities. The pheasant season opens in Minnesota next Saturday and with a great weather forecast, I decided to see if my new puppy, Tracer, could find a sharp-tail grouse or two as a warm up for the pheasant season.
I did not want to spend a whole lot of my travel money allotment, so a trip to south central South Dakota was the destination. The Buffalo Gap National Grasslands are almost 900,000 acres of land owned by the Federal Government that are managed for grazing, recreation and hunting.
I had heard of them before and might have even driven through the edges of them on other trips, but never knew much about them. They are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, so I called the district office in Wall, S.D., and talked to the district ranger there. His name is Alan Anderson.
He said the Bank head-Jones Farm Tennant Act of 1937, in great part, helped to create the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. This federal law authorized the government to buy land damaged by drought, overgrazing and the poor farming practices that ultimately led to the Dust Bowl. Everyone has seen the pictures from this country's work environmental disaster. With the land damaged from these practices, many settlers were abandoning their property and moving on.
In an effort to get them something for their land, the federal government purchased it from them. This was done in an effort to help the financially-strapped landowners and to put a system in place that could manage the land and bring it back to some form of productivity. This is where much of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands originated.
The property is managed for grazing and the U.S. Forest Service has grazing permits with local ranchers that are renewed annually after the range lands are inspected. Animal unit determinations are made based on how much grass is available in current conditions. The cost to graze on Federal lands is quite a deal. The permit costs $1.35 per animal unit per month. An animal unit is one cow/calf pair.
The average rate for grazing across the area is $29 per animal unit. Permit holders are very careful to graze and manage these lands to a very high standard. There are many restrictions on federal land that do not exist on private lands. This might be why the rate is much lower.
The grasslands are also managed for recreation and hunting. You can camp, ride a horse, watch wildlife or just about anything else that does not require motorized transportation and does not damage the property or its wildlife.
What I saw when I got there was very spectacular. I walked about six or seven miles per day and, at one point, I was three and a half miles from the nearest road. I wondered what I would do if I had fallen and broken my leg. You are a very long way from help; and cell service is spotty at best. Rattlesnakes inhabit the area and I had some medicine to administer to my dogs if they had gotten bit. I wondered if it would work on me. I had never asked this question. The issue was whether I could carry a dog three miles and have the physical strength to do it in a time frame that would save the dog.
At one point, as I was standing at the top of a long ravine which seemed to stretch for miles, I became aware of just how small I was. My presence in this vast area was a dot on a dot on a dot. As I was standing there, watering my dogs out of a squirt bottle, I was very taken by the rugged beauty of this space.
What I said in the first sentence about seeing something spectacular is really a personal definition. Many would have stood in exactly the same place and would have called this the most desolate place on the planet. I had stopped and taken the time to see the intertwined environment you can only see if you look close. I wondered how wildlife could survive without one thing over 3-feet-tall to stop the wind or give protection.
What I saw was a grouse population doing well, jack rabbits that gave my young dog a playful run in the countyside until Tracer decided the collar correction was less fun than the fun achieved by chasing an animal that could have left him in the dust anytime it wanted. At the age of 50, I also saw three deer in two days that were bigger than any other deer I had ever seen in my entire life.
All of these animals were living in a spot that seems so unfriendly. You never go for a walk in southwest Minnesota and spend time trying to dodge prickly pear cactus. The dogs could hunt with one eye on the ground and the other on the birds with pretty good success. There were a number of times, though, where a break and some thorn removal were required. This was a new hunting experience for me.
There were almost no other hunters in our area, so we could call the 3,000 acres we hunted on all our own for the two days we were there. Water there is really scarce, so the bird numbers were down a little, but all in all this was certainly a quality outing. I might have to try some primitive camping in this area in the future.
I can only imagine just how bright the stars must be at night when there is not an artificial light for more than 30 miles. You should take a pass through this unique grassland treasure and experience this unique landscape for yourself. It is one of 20 national grasslands in the great plains of United States managed by the U.S. Forest Service. I am adding a visit to the other 20 to my bucket list.
There is so much to see and experience and so little time to get it done, especially if you slow down and look really close.
Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.