Photograph by Annie Griffiths Belt
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For half a million years, water and wind have sculpted fantastic rock art in southwestern South Dakota, mesmerizing visitors to Badlands National Park. Life is scarce in these stark buttes. But a surrounding ocean of grasslands includes healthy numbers of buffalo, coyotes, pronghorn, and birds of prey. Here the prairie endures.

Photograph by Annie Griffiths Belt

Reefs in a Prairie Sea

A "Homecooking" sign, perched on the side of a gravel road in southwestern South Dakota, stops me. It leads to a brown sheet-metal building, the Cuny Table Café—two booths and one round table, first come, first served. Nellie Cuny and her sister do most of the cooking, which runs to T-bones and Indian tacos. Nellie's 61-year-old son, Marvin, does most of the talking. He offers me a ride around their sizable spread.

With Marvin's pickup locked in four-wheel-drive, we lurch for hours over Cuny Table, the plateau where his family has been raising horses and cattle for more than a hundred years. The family has stayed because this is the fat of the land: buffalo grass, wheatgrass, and grama grass, the full bushel basket of the mixed-grass prairie.

Marvin drives slowly through rippling pasture as several Cuny mares and foals sidle up. We stop. Knowing Marvin's truck may yield treats of grain cubes, some lay their muzzles on the hood.

The land benefits more than livestock. We see long-billed curlews—huge sandpipers—twittering overhead. Mule deer lift their heads, all ears. Half a dozen pronghorn, speed kings of North America, watch us nonchalantly. Then two of them bolt as if a gun had fired. Legs hidden in the grass, their tan-and-white bodies blur.

To the north, along the rim of Cuny Table, the horizon suddenly changes. The prairie gives way to a stark and eerie landscape, an area so desolate that the U.S. Air Force and later the National Guard used it for bombing and artillery practice from 1942 until 1970. "We lived next to the range," Marvin says. "Planes dropped targets with parachutes, and we'd watch where they came down. Then we'd go get the parachutes and make silk curtains and tablecloths out of ‘em."

THE GREAT-GRANDFATHERS OF THE OGLALA SIOUX called the land north of Cuny Table mako sica, "land bad." They had good reason. Eons of water and wind have carved the region into a wild maze of cliffs, canyons, spires, pinnacles, castles, balancing rocks, tables, gullies. Almost nothing lives in the hot, naked buttes except turkey vultures that soar and scan for a jackrabbit's carcass. French-Canadian fur trappers reviled the landscape as les mauvaises terres a traverser, the bad lands to cross.

Yet there is a richness to this desolation. These same haunting buttes draw 900,000 people a year to Badlands National Park, the heart of the landscape. Most come to drive along the Wall, a long, narrow rampart of colorfully banded cliffs and buttes that stretches some 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) from west to east. Surrounding the Wall and associated battlements, and woven through gaps among them, spreads 600,000 acres of prairie—most of it tended by the U.S. Forest Service as Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Together the two areas create a vast ecosystem of nearly 850,000 acres, a land of silence where thunderheads roam far horizons.

A middle ground between the sheer buttes and the flat grassland is a treasure in itself. A few miles west of the Wall, the buttes give way to low emerald hills threaded by cedars and cottonwoods—the park's Badlands Wilderness Area. Here Sage Creek and its branches wind for miles through an old floodplain. It's irresistible to a hiker seeking solitude: The only trails are maintained by some 800 buffalo, reintroduced beginning in 1963. In the ecosystem's grasslands, endangered black-footed ferrets also have been reintroduced, as have a few bighorn sheep, which are rarely seen.

I pick a buffalo trail and follow it south. Small groups of bison graze on tiny meadows below the hills. A coyote, pale as a ghost, lopes down a slope. The breeze carries the songs of western meadowlarks, rock wrens, and western kingbirds. Three old bulls, grazing near a primitive campground, have lost half their winter coats. Their front ends flap in the breeze like moth-eaten blankets; their fully molted rear ends stand naked as gray rhino hide.

Each summer as many as 10,000 visitors to Badlands National Park discover the real reason the park was created. Off the park's paved Loop Road, under a large shelter, they can watch researchers tease 33-million-year-old bones from the ground. These are White River fossils, fossils from the same formations—found throughout the park—that since 1846 have yielded thousands of specimens to famous bone hunters like Joseph Leidy, Othniel Marsh, and Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden. Museums worldwide—including Yale's Peabody Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian—display White River fossils as classic examples of mammalian evolution.

After 11 seasons this site, called the Big Pig Dig, has given up more than 8,000 bones from the Oligocene, the golden age of mammals, 34 to 25 million years ago. (The site takes its name from the first fossil found here—originally thought to be from a fearsome piglike animal.) The badlands hold no bones of dinosaurs, since the area was a vast inland sea during their reign. By the Oligocene, the dinosaurs were long gone, the inland sea had drained, and early mammals were colonizing the flourishing forests and savannas. The Big Pig Dig, a water hole that trapped animals in mud as it dried out, reveals a valuable cross section of evolution, mostly experiments that didn't make it: hornless rhinoceroses, tiny deer, horse prototypes, leopard-size cats.

The two visitors who reported the first Big Pig Dig bones, in 1993, left them undisturbed—a happy but atypical experience to the park staff. In fact, the White River Badlands were proclaimed a national monument in 1939 and elevated to a national park in 1978, mainly to protect the fossil beds from nonscientific collectors. Researchers with permits may collect here, but no one else.

About 35 times a year park rangers issue a warning or a small fine to visitors who pick up a tooth and don't know better. But one case involving fossil theft and attempted sale drew a $2,500 penalty; the law provides for a maximum of years in jail and a $250,000 fine. "Our big concern is the professional fossil hunter," says Scott López, the park's chief ranger and law enforcement officer. "Right out of the ground, a fossil might sell for $300. But after it's prepared and polished, it might bring $3,000."

A few years ago a young ranger came across a partially buried fossil skeleton. It was a titanothere, a mammal the size of a small elephant, with hornlike projections on its snout. Illegal hunters already had removed some bones; the rest have now been preserved on site. The first fossil ever discovered in these Badlands was a titanothere jaw fragment reported in 1846.

But the recent titanothere has become a bone of contention. It was found near Stronghold Table, in the park's South Unit, 133,000 acres of tribal land owned by the Oglala Sioux as part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Managed in trust by the Department of the Interior, the South Unit is part of the national park. Though the Sioux do not live there, Stronghold Table is sacred ground to the Sioux, site of one of their last Ghost Dances, in 1890. Later that year a band of Sioux, despite having surrendered, was massacred by U.S. troops 30 miles (98.3 kilometers) south along a creek with an infamous name: Wounded Knee. The Sioux still hold religious ceremonies on Stronghold Table, and they have strong opinions about what they will and will not permit on their land.

In 2002, invoking cultural preservation, Sioux protesters halted the Park Service's efforts to excavate the rest of the bone bed. "It's a stalemate," López, says. "We may have to bring in an outside mediator."

WHEN THE BONES OF THE BADLANDS turn up in the wrong hands, "Rachel Benton is the first person we call," says López. "She has to tell us what we're looking at." Benton, the park paleontologist, is a busy person. "Besides outright theft, now we have to worry about geo-caching," says López. In this latest twist to a treasure hunt, people hide a container and perhaps a trinket, take the GPS coordinates, and put the coordinates on the Internet. Other people go to the location and try to find the cache.

Although a treasure hunt may seem a nuisance at worst, and can have the positive effect of getting people out in nature, López warns of an escalation: Some geo-cachers are finding fossils in park rocks and putting those coordinates on the Web. Anyone can then come to look—or to take.

"To us, a shovel is a shovel," says Menton. "Digging up anything here is illegal." Her mental radar always on, Benton notices every vehicle parked on the roadside and scans for people carrying trowels and large packs.

While something can be done about fossil theft, little can he done about the other, natural, processes that damage fossils—wind and water erosion. Pointing to the Wall near Cedar Pass, Benton explains: The Badlands formation consists mostly of claystone, hundreds of feet thick, that washed down from the Black Hills to the west between 37 and 25 million years ago. Yet the sculpting of the Badlands began a mere 500,000 years ago, an eyeblink of geologic time.

"That's when the Cheyenne, the White, and the Bad River systems began to flow over all that clay sediment and carve the Wall," Benton says. "And at the present rate of erosion, this will all be gone in another half million years." Long before that, of course, countless fossils will be washed away. Water and wind continue to carve the Badlands, claiming up to an inch (2.5 centimeters) or more in some places each year.

"Probably an oreodont," Benton says as we walk along a butte and she spots a fist-size skull protruding from the bank. "We find them throughout the park. Sheeplike mammals that lived in herds about 30 million years ago." The fossil lies intact in the soil, but Benton knows other eyes are searching for such a find. Back in the car, we round a bend.

"Stop," she says. "I want to check out that van."