Desolate expanses of ravaged rock scar a grimly picturesque landscape. Upturned millions of years ago by a prehistoric turbulence, the land is still slowly but relentlessly being torn apart. No place on Earth is more aptly named than the Badlands of South Dakota, in the United States.
A forbidding vista of barren, jagged hills and saw-toothed ridges, criss-crossed with sharp ravines and slashed by shadowy gullies – a more inhospitable place is difficult to imagine. Narrow, flat-topped hills loom menacingly like battlements on the horizon, capped in places by threatening masses of rocks and boulders.
The local Sioux Indians called this landscape mako sica and to an intrepid band of 18th-century French-Canadian fur trappers it was les mauvaises terres. (Both names translate as ‘bad lands’). The trappers were travelling southwards down the Missouri River in search of pelts and trade. Just north of the White River they stopped suddenly in their tracks; they had entered the Badlands, a terrain more hostile than any they had ever encountered. The seemingly endless landscape, eerily empty and searingly hot, was also arduous to cross. Heavy summer cloudbursts had rendered the clay underfoot a morass of mud that made every step treacherous.
The plateau that is now the Badlands began to form about 80 million years ago. Extending over 6000 sq. miles (15,500km), between Mount Rushmore in the west and the Missouri River in the east, the area during that period was a shallow sea, its bed rich with a variety of sediments. Around 65 million years ago, the same upheaval in the Earth’s crust that created the Rocky Mountains shattered the seabed and pushed it upwards to create an immense marshy plain. As the region gradually became drier, it evolved into a rolling prairie of lush green grassland dotted with conifers. But erosion started to take its toll, and the combined potent forces of wind, water and freezing temperatures sculpted spires and ravines, transforming the rich pasture land into a gloomy wilderness with an atmosphere of decay.
The process of erosion is constant: the semi-arid Badlands are being worn away each year by the sudden, torrential June rains. About 15m (38cm) of rain falls every year, but most of it arrives in intermittent downpours so violent that a network of powerful rivers and gullies is created that covers the landscape and tears at the earth before vanishing. Water thunders from ridge to ridge, rushing through the narrow ravines with astonishing force. The ancient sedimentary layers, never compressed by harder rock and with no vegetation to anchor them, offer no resistance to running water and are easily washed away. The enormous run-off of clay, stones and gravel pours into the great White River and from there flows into the Missouri. (Among the sediments are chalky grains which do not dissolve but remain churning constantly in the water – hence the name White river). With each new summer storm, the ridges are further eroded and the gullies carved deeper. In this way, some pinnacles of rock, among them Vampire Peak, are shrinking by as much as 6m (15cm) every year.
As the elements relentlessly wear away the soft surface of the Badlands, a wealth of giant fossils is exposed, irrefutable evidence of the many species that have appeared and then disappeared as the area has undergone geological changes. The fossil species include fish and reptiles from the Cretaceous period, when the region was a vast sea, and land animals from the Oligocene period (which ended 23 million years ago). During this era, sabre-toothed tigers, three-toed horses and a type of camel no larger than a dog ranged the fertile grasslands.
For many years, the Badlands were stripped off their wealth of fossils by traders and trippers. Now that the area is acknowledged as the richest Oligocene fossil bed in the world, constantly yielding up more fascinating finds, it is protected as a precious paleontological resource. The contrasting tints in the soft, multi-layered rock reflect its development from prehistoric times. Various strata contain shale (once mud on the floor of an ancient inland sea), sandstone deposited by long vanished rivers, bands of compacted volcanic ash and a frosting of pale ash from the final volcanic phase. Since agriculture was banned in the Badlands in 1978, the region’s natural vegetation has grown without hindrance.
Despite their virtually barren appearance, the Badlands support a variety of animal and plant life. Coyotes, cotton-tails and jackrabbits make these forbidding plains their home, but rodents, including the Badlands chipmunk, and reptiles such as bullsnakes and rattlesnakes, are the principal inhabitants. Plants have great difficulty gaining a permanent foothold here, since a site that has provided them with a protected niche for more than a generation is apt to disappear overnight. Yet some sheltered pockets exist, especially on the fringes of the Badlands where the soil has gradually taken on many of the characteristics of the surrounding prairies. In this more stable environment plants are able to grow, thus binding the topsoil and so preventing erosion. Here, buffalo grass and the prairie golden pea thrive, plants that once provided grazing for the vast herds of bison that roamed the prairies. On the outer fringes, too, prairie dogs – not dogs at all but in fact burrowing squirrel-like rodents – establish their elaborate homes. Known as towns, these underground colonies include designated areas for sleeping, feeding and excretion. The region also supports a few tree species, including the juniper, red cedar and yellow willow, while rock wrens nest in crannies in the rock face.
The Badland’s story is not exclusively one of the constant decay and struggle for survival. During the 1960’s, small numbers of bison and bighorn sheep were successfully reintroduced into the area, together with the near-extinct pronghorn, which inhabits the outlying areas. In 1978, the Badlands were designated a national park.