Seeing Potential in the Pine Ridge and the Burgeoning Black Hills

The Black Hills of South Dakota and the Pine Ridge of Nebraska rise above the prairie grasslands like unique, forested islands. Each has its own habitat intricacies — and evolving issues. 

They represent a key focal landscape for the NWTF, and a large cast of players are working together to ensure their viability.  

The Black Hills region consists of 1.5 million acres of private and public holdings, of which 1.2 million acres are in the Black Hills National Forest. It resides primarily in western South Dakota and spills into eastern Wyoming. It’s trademarked by the regal, granite sculpture of Mount Rushmore rising from the ponderosa pine forest.  

To the south sits the meandering Nebraska Pine Ridge, located in the state’s extreme northwest corner. It spans a region up to 20 miles across and 100 miles long, with administration of more than 141,000 forest acres falling under the Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands. 

“The Black Hills and Pine Ridge focal landscape is a high-priority landscape for the NWTF,” says Collin Smith, a certified wildlife biologist and NWTF district biologist for Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. “This region of Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska contains what are likely the most productive ponderosa pine forests in the country. And it has the highest density of Merriam’s wild turkeys found on public lands anywhere in the country.” 

Smith notes that most serious turkey hunters target this region for the chance at a Merriam’s and to fulfill their grand slam. Abundant public lands, license availability and a healthy Merriam’s turkey population draw lots of interest to the region. That equals an economic impact for rural communities outside of the traditional summer tourism season. 

Photo by Collin Smith

Interestingly, turkey populations were never historically recorded in the Black Hills or adjacent portions in Wyoming; however, populations were documented in areas of western Nebraska. Decimated in the region by the early 1900s, wild turkey conservation efforts to restore Nebraska populations started in the 1950s. A stocking effort to establish a Merriam’s flock in the Black Hills began in 1948. 

As with most wildlife species, wild turkeys in the area have seen a roller-coaster ride from nearly problematic highs to concerning lows. Overall, wild turkeys in the three-state Black Hills region have a strong foothold, despite the ups and downs, says Smith. 

“Some wildlife populations have been extirpated, such is the case with black bears, grizzly bears and wolves, while others have been introduced by man, such as bighorn sheep and mountain goats,” notes Smith. “Still others, such as the pine marten, were reintroduced after going extinct during the post-European settlement era. Overall, wildlife diversity is down from the pre-settlement time period; however, some species have been introduced and yet others may now exist in higher quantities than ever before.”

Despite a confined, island nature, wide-ranging habitat issues dominate management planning in the region. Years of fire suppression and an increase in foothill development created challenges to maximizing plants and animals. For Kurt Dyroff, the NWTF’s acting chief conservation officer, one issue stands out. Forest plans can be altered and amended, but controlling development on private property within the region is a challenge. 

“This area is being developed at a rate of 14 acres per day, according to the data available to us,” declares Dyroff. “It’s imperative we work cooperatively with all agencies, state and federal, to maximize habitat management decisions where possible. At the end of each year, we lose more than 5,000 acres to development, but projects on public lands can offset that expansion to a degree.”

Jared McJunkin, a certified wildlife biologist and the NWTF’s acting western region director of conservation operations, agrees human interference has altered this focal landscape. He also adds not to overlook the effects years of fire suppression brought to the region. 

“Fire suppression and human development changed the Black Hills landscape dramatically, and those changes can have lasting impacts on wildlife migration and habitat use,” says McJunkin. “Fire suppression has led to a dense overstory, as ponderosa pine is prolific in the Black Hills. This leads to increased wildfire risk and less non-woody plants available for wildlife. It is critical for forest management to continue and even accelerate in some areas of the Black Hills proper.”

Historically, the Black Hills and surrounding areas saw wildfire on a regular basis prior to European settlement, based on comparing photographs from the late 1800s with present-day images. Without fire, ponderosa pines overtook meadows and created dense stands of timber where a more open canopy existed in the historical images.

Prescribed fire aids in thinning dense stands and reducing fuel loads on the ground. Plus, it keeps naturally-occurring fires from jumping into the canopies of pines. Large, hot and out-of-control wildfires can dramatically change stretches of landscape, as occurred in the massive Jasper Fire of 2000. 

While fire suppression led to increased fuel loads, the 17-year mountain pine beetle epidemic also brought an intensified need for forest thinning, as it continues to kill stands of pines in the three-state area. 

On the plus side, the Black Hills still has an active logging industry. Combined with controlled burns, the two make a difference in opening previously closed canopies of pine and removing beetle-infested timber. Nevertheless, every management decision must be weighed with a concern for houses spread throughout the forest. Controlled burns are never guaranteed, and more voices can slow down management decisions as a consensus is formed on forest processes. 

“The Black Hills is heavily developed, especially on the South Dakota side,” stresses McJunkin. “The Pine Ridge is less developed, but residential housing is still an imposing risk moving into the future, as more and more people desire their slice of this unique landscape.”

Photo by Jared McJunkin

Despite the huge management hurdles, McJunkin is encouraged by the effort of many agencies and organizations, including the NWTF. There is concerted energy to actively manage the forested areas in this focal landscape. The NWTF intends to remain at the table. A good example of this is the Nebraska NWTF State Board of Directors’ dedication of $45,250 to Hunting Heritage Super Fund projects to Save the Habitat there. A three-year commitment of $5,000 annually is targeted in the region for forest and river corridor restoration. 

“Working with our partners, including state and federal agencies, plus the timber industry, we can provide landowners with options,” stresses Dyroff. “We can connect them with programs, help them write management plans and offer aid to make decisions economically feasible. This area benefits from turkey hunting, forest use and commercial interests occurring throughout. Finding a solution to conserve this distinctive landscape is something the NWTF feels strongly about, and we are determined to meet the challenge.”

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