Kylie’s Good Day in the Badlands
The jagged pinnacles and equally rough-edged crevasses of Badlands National Park don’t lend themselves to the exactitudes of mathematical graphing. So an array of little flags patterned over a small hump of wind-carved sandstone located a few steps away from Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the heart of the park seems somewhat incongruous to my amateur eyes.
And the story behind this exciting new scientific undertaking, involving a seven-year-old girl who “did the right thing,” is equally unusual. Kylie Ferguson was hiking a short distance from the center with her mother when she noticed a white, shiny knob of “something” sticking out of the ground. She had just finished listening to a park ranger tell her group of Junior Paleontologists what to do if they found a fossil. So instead of disturbing that little white knob, Kylie went back to the visitor center and wrote up a detailed report about her find.
The park’s grown-up paleontologists didn’t dig it up either. They watched the little fossil all summer long as infrequent rains and steady winds continued to erode the sandy surface. By the end of the summer, their patience was rewarded! The little knob was actually an ancient tooth attached to the intact skull of a saber-tooth cat. It turned out to be a rare, museum-quality discovery, and prompted the decision to start a new “dig” in hopes of discovering more about the prehistoric cat and the environment in which it lived.
That’s why a couple of young interns are perched on a rock next to the little flags, carefully creating the graph map that will overlay the fossil bed so the position of every discovery can be marked. A park volunteer answers questions by curious tourists, while the interns stay focused on their scientific endeavors.
After a few minutes, I head for the visitor center where the public can watch experts and interns painstakingly remove the sandy debris from fossil finds. The Saber Site and the lab area are open all summer long from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.
It is perhaps an under-appreciated fact to most visitors, but the rich fossil beds of Badlands National Park were the original attraction. The region’s Native Americans were the first collectors of the area’s treasure trove of large fossilized bones and seashells. White explorers arrived in the 1840s, and were quickly followed by more-or-less educated collectors. Over the years, the Badlands developed its status as the world’s richest known depository of Oligocene mammal fossils – creatures that roamed the area 33 million years ago.
It’s the ageless and eerie beauty of the Badlands that continues to draw many thousands of visitors to the park every year. Over the millennia, wind, rain and stone have combined to create the rugged, ever shifting landscapes. The lands of the Lakota Nation encompass the southern Badlands region, with proud cultural traditions that match their spectacular homeland.
Visitors can get at least a glimpse – and much more – of the enduring traditions of the Lakota Sioux, as well as stories about local homesteaders, during the park’s annual Badlands Heritage Celebration, set for July 20-22 this year. Another new event stars the night sky. Taking advantage of its location far from the bright lights of civilization, the first Badlands’ Astronomy Festival will take place Aug. 17-19.
But for most visitors – and local folks, too – every drive into Badlands National Park is a special occasion. Every turn of the Badlands Loop Road reveals a striking mix of sandstone pinnacles and chasms, and it’s usually easy to catch sight of the buffalo, antelope, bighorn sheep and, of course, prairie dogs, that call the park home. And there’s the long-shot chance that you, too, might discover a rare fossil along one of the park’s many scenic hiking trails, making it yet another good day in the Badlands.