Wind Cave National Park
The buffalo herds in Wind Cave National Park are bigger, darker and genetically pure. This one has an unusual crop of long, straight hair.

Most people are drawn to Wind Cave National Park to check out the cave with an entrance that blows people away, contains a rare formation called "box work" and is said to be one of the most complex caves in the world. From the moment I read that Wind Cave National Park was home to one of the very few herds of genetically pure bison on the planet - and perhaps the only healthy one, since they're free of brucellosis, unlike their genetically pure brothers in Yellowstone National Park - I made tracks to see them. 

It took a few visits to score a sighting, but since then, I can't seem to get enough of these awesome creatures. They don't look quite like most of their neighbors in Custer State Park, who have been defiled by cattle. Not that I don't admire them, too, but Wind Cave's bison are bigger, darker, with heavier beards, hairier legs and just all-around meaner looking in their own laid-back, bucolic way. We even spotted one with an unusual crop of long, straight hair - blowing above his forehead on a particularly windy day - that bore a striking resemblance to Donald Trump. I think it's safe to assume he didn't somehow muddy the gene pool. 

These fantastic beasts, the largest land mammals in North America, never fail to take my breath away. So I found a great excuse to visit the park just about every weekend. It's a perfect place to let my teenage daughter practice her new driving skills, or lack thereof. While she struggles to keep the truck on the winding roads, I ogle the countryside and make her stop whenever we see a "buffalo." If I'm going to take life in hand, I might as well risk it in a glorious place. 

Wind Cave's unique herd of about 525 bison didn't just happen by chance. John Estes Suter, who was the park's wildlife manager from 1931 to 1944, noticed that some bison looked different from others. He talked with Native Americans who knew what the animals looked like before they were slaughtered to near extinction in the late 1800s, then he culled the herd in a determined effort to keep the pure traits. A Wind Cave official once described them as "the closest thing to what used to wander the prairies for thousands of years." 

Suter apparently knew what he was doing. Recent genetic studies conducted by Texas A&M University found that the Wind Cave herd is very high in genetic diversity but free of domestic cattle genes, making them ideal for restoration efforts. Some were sent to Mexico a few years ago in an effort to revive their presence south of the border.

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One of these days, I might get around to checking out the cave that is the namesake of Wind Cave National Park. I hear it's something to see, but as far as I'm concerned, it couldn't possibly be as fascinating as the rare bison wandering the grounds above it. 

Getting there

Take South Dakota Highway 79 south to Hot Springs. Turn right on to U.S. 385, which winds through town, then heads north to the park entrance.

Jill Blondin is the Journal opinion editor. Contact her at 394-8427 or jill.blondin@rapidcityjournal.com

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