The swish of a tail. The flick of an ear. As I look through my binoculars I catch myself searching for cheetahs. Then I realize we are in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. There are no cheetahs in these grasslands although, believe it or not, there used to be not long ago. The American Cheetah.
How the American Cheetah Went Extinct
For over two million years, the American Cheetah (Miracinonyx) lived in this land. It hunted for pronghorns just as the cheetahs in Southern Africa hunt for springbok today. For many years it was believed that these two cheetahs were not closely related. It was believed that the two species did not share an immediate common ancestor, but that their similarities were the result of convergent evolution (where not closely related species develop similar traits).
Things got interesting when in 2014, scientists excavating the Natural Trap Cave, a large sinkhole in Wyoming just 400 miles west from Theodore Roosevelt national park, made an incredible discovery. The scientists found a large number of fossils of Ice Age mammals, including the American cheetah, wolf, horse, and bison. Some of the fossils were so well preserved that even some collagen was intact and could be used for DNA testing.
After more research and genome testing it was concluded that the American cheetah migrated to Africa through Eurasia about 100,000 years ago to become finally extinct 12,000 years ago. This coincides with the Pleistocene (Ice Age) large mammal extinctions.
Sadly, American cheetah fossils are very rare and they are probably being used in research until all the questions have been answered.
And this is how the American pronghorn became so mind-bogglingly fast! By outrunning a nearly-as-fast predator for millions of years. Now the pronghorn blasts across the North American prairies with nothing to outrun but pickup trucks.
The African Connection at Theodore Roosevelt national park
Even though the American cheetah is not here any longer, I can’t help scanning the grasses for that spotted coat. This land keeps taking me back to Southern Africa.
The smell of the air, a mixture of sage and mint with a hint of bison poop, could easily fool you. Close your eyes and this could be the aroma of South African sage mixed with water buffalo droppings. The sound of a dozen feral horses galloping could well be the sound of zebras running across the savanna. This river valley would be right at home in Kruger or in Zululand, South Africa.
Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park lies within the Little Missouri National Grassland, the largest grassland in the US. It is a long way from Southern Africa.
Camping at Theodore Roosevelt
This morning we woke to the sound of yapping coyotes while the moon shone through the sides of our tent. We could have been in Namibia, where jackals bark and yap just like coyotes. They even look alike.
But there is something missing here: a visible population of large predators. With the extinction of the American Cheetah 12,000 years ago and the removal of wolves in the past century, only a few big predators, like the occasional mountain lion, have found their way back in. Now, park rangers manage wildlife populations in an attempt to mimic what the wolves, bears, and even cheetahs had done naturally for thousands of years.
Even without big predators, Theodore Roosevelt has been a pleasant surprise in our itinerary. We had never intended to visit; it was merely a convenient stopping point between Winnipeg and Yellowstone National Park. I’d never even heard of it until I woke up in the passenger seat and Hal announced that he was aiming for it as our camping destination of the night. We arrived late in the evening and descended from the prairie plateau into the surprisingly beautiful and colorful badlands of Theodore Roosevelt.
As it was already sunset we set up camp just outside the North Unit entrance of the park. When we woke up the morning, we took a short walk along the Maah Daah Hey Trail which connects the North Unit to the South Unit of the park, and is the longest single track mountain bike trail in America (a total of 96 miles). I could clearly envision mountain lions living here, moving along in the shadows of the night.
There is certainly plenty of wildlife in this little-known national park. It is hard to miss the bison as their wanderings cause frequent traffic jams on the wildlife loop.
Feral horses peek over the hilltops and the prairie dog towns are so big that you’ll find yourself stopping the car regularly to watch their cheeky antics. Listening to their calls you will notice there are different sounds for different predators, and it is even believed that these calls contain information about how fast the predator is approaching and how big it is!
And keep your eyes open for coyotes as they are never too far away from a prairie dog town. If you do spot a coyote, you may get lucky and spot another small predator working alongside. Badgers like to team up with coyotes when hunting amongst the prairie dog towns.
Other wildlife are more difficult to spot. Our best advice is to ask the park rangers at the visitor center. They are very knowledgeable about recent sightings and they know which trails are best for burrowing owls, pronghorn, elk, and bighorn sheep.
Our two-night visit was definitely too short. Even though there are no cheetahs, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has been one of the highlights of our American Safari. We are definitely putting it on the list for “next time”.
Have you visited Theodore Roosevelt national park? Tell us about your experience in the comments below! Is it one of your favorite national parks to see wildlife?