On January 9, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill creating Wind Cave National Park. It was the seventh national park and the first one created to protect a cave.
In 1912, the American Bison Society was looking for a place to reestablish a viable herd. Because of the excellent prairie habitat around the park, a national game preserve managed by the U.S. Biological Survey was established bordering Wind Cave. Fourteen bison came from the New York Zoological Society, twenty-one elk arrived from Wyoming and thirteen pronghorn came from Alberta, Canada.
In July of 1935, the game preserve became part of Wind Cave National Park. During the early years of the preserve, the animals were kept in small enclosures. Eventually, it was realized that they needed more space. The bison and elk required additional forage, and the pronghorn needed room to escape from predators. With the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), fences within the park were removed. And in 1946, 16,341 additional acres were added, enlarging the park to 28,059 acres.
Interest in the wildlife attracted more visitors to the park and additional improvements were necessary. Other Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the 1930’s included roads, the entrance to the cave, concrete stairs in the cave, the elevator building and shaft, and other structures.
During the 1950’s and 60’s, park wildlife was the focus of much attention. Because of the lack of large predators like wolves and grizzly bears, the bison and elk herds had grown to the point that they were literally “eating themselves out of house and home.” Park rangers began to evaluate the carrying capacity of the park. To solve the problem of overgrazing, the bison and elk herd sizes were reduced. Rangers also worked to improve the grassland by reseeding overgrazed areas with native grasses and controlling exotic plant species. In the 1970’s and 80’s, managers continued to focus on caring for the wildlife and rangeland by building an understanding of how the natural systems should function.
The mission of Wind Cave National Park is to preserve and protect the natural resources. Because of its relatively small size and because there are missing parts, managers must take an active role in helping the ecosystems function as they might have in the past. This requires understanding how everything in the park is interrelated. Park rangers work with researchers to replicate that natural system using prescribed fires, culling of bison and elk herds, and biological control of exotic plant species.