Best Places to See Wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota has become one of America’s secret summer road trip stops. Named for our nation’s 26th president, this national park protects more than 70,000 acres along Interstate 94. Popularity has grown in part because of the wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the lack of crowds compared to other national parks of the west.

Today we’re sharing our guide to the wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National park. Our guide includes what animals live there and the best places to find them during your visit.

Where is Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects three separate park unit areas the North Unit, South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch. The park’s South Unit is the largest and found directly off I-94 near the gateway community of Medora, ND.

The park’s other two units are located further north from I-94, but offer outstanding options for hiking and wildlife viewing. Park Chasers has spent time in all parts of the park. We recommend that if you have just a few hours to visit the South Unit and take the Scenic Loop Drive. If you have a day or more, plan to visit the North Unit and hike as well.

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What Wildlife Live in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

What Wildlife Live in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is well-known for its large mammals and bird life. When the park was established in the 1940’s many of the native wildlife were missing. Hunting and farming long pushed them out of the region. Ongoing wildlife management efforts have restored some populations of large mammals. The park now offers visitors the opportunity to see these animals in their historic Badlands habitat.

Visitors can look for these popular mammals and birds while looking for wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park:

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to excellent bison viewing.

Bison

One of the many reasons Theodore Roosevelt acted to protect the wildlife of the Great Plains was his love of the America Bison or buffalo. They are the largest land animals in North America and an impressive feature in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Currently, the park manages the herd size in both the North and South units of the park. Wildlife managers have currently set herd size at approximately 200 to 400 animals for the South Unit and 100 to 300 for the North Unit. This allows the plant life to sustain itself and the herd to have more stable numbers season to season.

Feral Horses

One of the things that makes Theodore Roosevelt unique among national parks of the west is the opportunity to see the park’s free-roaming horse herd. The herd represents a relic of the era of open-range ranching of the late 19th century and are some favorites of park visitors.

You might wonder why the horses are called feral, not wild? That’s because they originated from a domestic herd. Historically, there would not have been wild horses in the region. The feral herd is found exclusively in the South Unit of the park. Visitors can typically spot them in small groups of 5-15 horses, each group managed by a dominant stallion.

Prairie Dog

Prairie Dogs

While not necessarily a ‘large’ mammal, another popular animal to view in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are the Black-tailed prairie dogs. There are a number of prairie dog ‘towns’ throughout the park, allowing visitors to pull up along the road and watch these fun critters go about their daily business.

Golden Eagle

If you happen to be near a prairie dog town and hear their squealing warning call, look up and you may find the culprit. Golden eagles can frequently be found soaring above the rocks and grasslands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Longhorn Steers

When President Roosevelt fell in love with the area in and around what is now the national park, it was in the heart of long-range cattle ranching across the Great Plains. In Memoriam to both the legendary men and women whose livelihood depended upon moving cattle across the plains and in honor of the animals themselves, the park maintains a small herd of longhorn steers in the North unit. The demonstration herd provides visitors with the opportunity to see the herd grazing as they would have over a century ago.

Elk

In 1985, the National Park Service reintroduced elk among the wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. These large, majestic ungulates had a historic range that stretched well into North Dakota, but because of hunting and habitat destruction the population there were very few in the area. Since then, a growing elk herd can be found roaming in the South Unit of the park.

Other Wildlife To Watch For in Theodore Roosevelt National Park:

  • Bighorn Sheep
  • Mule Deer
  • White-tailed Deer
  • Pronghorn Antelope
  • Mountain Lion (Extremely Rare)
  • Coyote
  • Porcupine
  • American Kestrel
  • Northern Harrier
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Hairy Woodpecker

Best Places to See Wildlife in the Park

Now that you know what animals to be searching for during your next visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, it’s time to start searching. We always recommend stopping in at the nearest ranger station to ask about recent wildlife sightings. Rangers are the local experts and can report seasonal information about the wildlife and point out more detailed information on a park map.

To get your search started, here’s our list of best places to see wildlife in the park:

Buck Hill Area

The Buck Hill area of the South Unit is reported to be one of the best areas to spot elk in the park. Depending on the season, the herd frequents the grassy areas particularly early in the morning and late in the day. You may also spot elk from the Interstate, although stopping to view them is prohibited.

Scenic Loop Drive is one area to see wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Scenic Loop Drive – Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Scenic Loop Drive

Park Chasers did a full article about the 36 mile Scenic Loop Drive in the South Unit of the park because we saw so much wildlife along the route. There are several prairie dog towns along the way (including three of the park’s largest) and the only chance to view the park’s feral horses. You’re also likely to encounter bison multiple times along the loop. Check with rangers for the closest place to view the herd.

Squaw Creek & Little Mo Nature Trail

Located in the heart of the North Unit, the Squaw Creek area along both the Buckhorn Trail and Little Mo Nature Trail are good opportunities for visitors to spot wildlife in the park. The North Unit’s bison herd, deer species, and pronghorns can all be spotted in the grasslands in and around this area. There are also opportunities to spot beavers and some of the more rare bird species along The Little Mo.

North Unit – Mile Marker 2

If you’re interested in spotting the demonstration herd of longhorn cattle maintained by the park, they most frequently can be found grazing around mile marker 2 of the North Unit’s scenic drive.

Oxbow Overlook

Located at end of the North Unit’s 14-mile drive, Oxbow Overlook offers a stunning overview of the landscape, and another opportunity to spot wildlife through binoculars or a scope. Although bighorn sheep populations have been impacted by livestock infections in recent years, this was a popular location to view them in the park.

Caprock Coulee & Buckhorn Trails

If you’re looking for prairie dogs in the North Unit, you won’t find any of the large roadside towns like you would in the South Unit of the park. Instead, you’ll need to hike along the Caprock Coulee Trail, a 1.5-mile hike self-guided nature trail or the more strenuous 11.4-mile, Buckhorn Trail. Ask a ranger about hiking distances to the prairie dog towns and remember to never approach them on the trail.


American Bison are among the wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Safely Viewing Wildlife in the Park

Given that the wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt tend to hang close to the park’s trails and roadways, the National Park Service posts (and enforces) guidelines about safely viewing wildlife in the park. This note is from the park website:

 All wildlife in the park are wild and potentially dangerous. Keep a safe distance from all wildlife. Some animals like bison, feral horses, and prairie dogs may seem tame, but they are wild animals and can be dangerous. People who get too close to them may be gored by antlers and horns, trampled by hooves, or bitten by sharp teeth. Maintain at least 25 yards distance from all wildlife. Use binoculars, spotting scopes, or telephoto lenses for safe viewing and to avoid disturbing them. If an animal moves away from you as you approach, you are too close! Respect all wildlife. The park is their home.

https://www.nps.gov/thro/planyourvisit/wildlife-viewing.htm

Other tips to safely view the wildlife: 

  • Never intentionally get close to an animal. No selfie is worth it.
  • Individual animals have their own personal space requirements. Every animal will react differently and its behavior cannot be predicted. 
  • If you see a bison along the road, please do not stop near it. If you wish to view the bison, travel at least 100 yards (91.4 meters) away and pull over in a safe location. Avoid traffic back ups related to bison crossing if possible.
  • If you see one animal, look for others. Species like bison, deer, elk, pronghorn, and feral horses are seldom alone.
  • Pets pose a risk to wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are allowed in developed areas like front country campgrounds and picnic areas. Pets are NOT allowed on any of the trails or in any buildings.

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