Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota requires the visitor to search for beauty within the 36 mile vehicle loop, unlike some of the more spectacular national parks such as Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon or Zion. On any random visit, a lucky visitor might possibly be blessed with stormy rain clouds, clearing storms or special light. More typically, on a hot clear blue sky day, you must really search for the attractiveness of the park.
Animals of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
While there are a few grand vistas within the National Park where you can imagine Theodore Roosevelt looking out over his cattle herd or searching for buffalo, it is the wild horses, prairie dogs and coyotes that can be counted on to be spotted during any visit.
Theodore Roosevelt spent Strenuous Years in the Badlands
Normally, I am not one to spend much time in the park museum or researching a park. However, for the reasons mentioned above, I had some time to explore and research Theodore Roosevelt. TR said his life would not be the same but for his ranching days in the Badlands. Many articles about Roosevelt quote him stating: “I would not have been president if it hadn’t been for my experience in North Dakota.” He often described his life in North Dakota as the “strenuous life.” At various times the Badlands were visited for the adventure of a buffalo hunt, test his mettle and at others to help deal with the immense grief he suffered. On Valentine’s Day, 1884, Teddy Roosevelt sat by his dying mother’s bedside at his home in Albany, NY. That day his mother succumbed to typhoid fever. Only hours later, his ill wife died from kidney disease in an adjacent room, only two days after giving birth to the couple’s daughter. After the legislative session ended that year, the grieving politician again traveled to North Dakota to immerse himself in ranching and hunting, thinking he may spend the rest of his life as a cattleman.
Failed Ranching in the Badlands
Some accounts of Theodore Roosevelt’s days as a cattle rancher simply state he failed. However, that does not do justice to the disaster in the Badlands which led to his ranching failure. The herds of thunderous buffalo which once numbered in the tens of thousands had dwindled to about 1,200 in 1886. Cattlemen in Texas and all over the Midwest flooded the grasslands with cattle to take advantage of the now empty, verdant fields. With no regulation, the fields quickly became over grazed and eroded. Making matters worse, an unusually late thaw and a scorching summer resulted in a short growing season. Wildfires burned much of what little grass grew. The following winter turned out to be one of the most harsh for the Badlands. With temperatures as low as -41 degrees F., cattle were found frozen in deep snow where they stood. The more hardy cattle survived long enough to wander into the small town of Medora and eat the tar paper off of the houses before succumbing. When the snow eventually melted, cows were found in the tops of trees, having climbed huge snow drifts to eat the twigs and branches before freezing amid the branches. Nearly 80% of all cattle in the area were lost that winter. Such massive amounts of snow led to the inevitable swelling of the Little Missouri River which carried the carcasses of thousands of cattle down the icy river.
Theodore Roosevelt, our First Conservationist President
Witnessing the unrestrained decline in the buffalo population, results of overgrazing in the Dakota grasslands and seeing plume hunters slaughtering the last colonies of brown pelicans for their feathers, leaving the carcasses to rot were at the heart of President Roosevelt’s conservationist actions throughout his presidency. He created, through executive order, the first national wildlife refuge on Pelican Island in Florida. Other achievements include the creation of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park and preservation of Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest as national monuments, later upgraded to national parks. Under his guidance, the national forest system increased over 400 fold. He created the Nation’s first national monument, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. In his honor, the Badlands of South Dakota were designated a memorial park in 1947 and upgraded to national park status in 1978.