Bear Country USA
Very few people have had a full-grown black bear look in the window of their family car, or if they have, it was not by choice. Even fewer have seen a reindeer or a elk up close. However, many people are getting experiences like these at Bear Country U.S.A. in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Nestled over 250 acres amidst towering pines and along rolling meadows just eight miles south of Rapid City, Bear Country U.S.A. offers visitors intimate views of most North American mammals. Visitors take a leisurely three-mile drive through several enclosures and encounter black bear, elk, reindeer, deer, cougars, bobcats, rocky mountain goats, bighorn sheep, dall sheep and buffalo.
At this "the home of the largest collection of privately owned black bear in the world", Bear Country U.S.A. guests are guaranteed to see more than they bargained for. From the comfort of their own car, visitors watch as these clowns of nature frolic in a pool, climb trees and amble across the road in front of their vehicle.
Dr. Dennis "Doc" Casey, and his wife Pauline, opened Bear Country U.S.A. in August 1972 with 11 black bear, one cougar, one wolf, three buffalo and one large bull elk. The park is still owned and operated by Pauline and 3 of her children; Shannon, Mike and John. Wildlife at Bear Country U.S.A. has expanded in the past 28 years featuring over 200 black bear and various other wildlife.
"There were no zoos nearby when we opened," says Pauline Casey. "We wanted the people of Rapid City to enjoy the animals like we did. What we envisioned as a local attraction has grown to draw people from all over North American and some foreign countries".
The biggest change at Bear Country has been the number of animals living at the park. Most of the wildlife are born on the premises and are hand-raised by the park staff. Every spring the Casey's look forward to a new crop of bear cubs.
The cubs are born in early January while their mothers are in hibernation. The cubs stay with their mothers for eight weeks. Then, in early March, Bear Country handlers remove the cubs from their dens, and staff members bottle feed the babies for another six to eight weeks.
Bear Country U.S.A. takes the babies from their mothers for three simple reasons: survival rate, manageability and marketability.
"In the wild only 40% of cubs see the end of their first year," says Pauline Casey. "At Bear Country our survival rate is substantially higher (98%). By human-imprinting the animals shortly after birth (2 months) we are able to manage them as adults making vaccinating and moving them much easier and safer. Lastly, we have earned a strong reputation among zoos, wildlife parks and even movie studios for even-tempered, manageable animals."
Along with the bears, park staff members raise young timber wolves, arctic wolves, bobcats and mountain lions throughout the late winter, spring and early summer as they are born at Bear Country.
Even though animal numbers have increased, park acreage at Bear Country U.S.A. has not. However, the steady increase of animals has prompted many park improvements. Animal enclosures are consistently landscaped and renovated, as presenting the animals in natural habitats is very important to the Caseys.
The recently expanded Wildlife Center displays the young and smaller animals and offers visitors a chance to get out of their cars and take a closer look. Black bear cubs and young wolf pups romp through the grassy enclosures. Besides the bear cubs, a couple of our other main displays are the otters who love to play in their waterfalls and pools and our adult grizzly bears whom we moved into their new pen in 2004, they are much more visible to the visitors. The center also displays young bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes. Smaller animals, such as foxes, badger and skunks, also make the Wildlife Center their home. The animals on display do vary a little from year to year due to whether or not that species has had offspring in our park.