Each of the five units of Custer National Forest in South Dakota (Slim Buttes, North and South Cave Hills, East and West Short Pines) are tablelands that arise several hundred meters above the surrounding plains. They have miles of steep sandstone and limestone cliffs which provide plentiful ledges, crevices, and small caves for nesting birds, especially raptors. They are covered, to varying degrees, with Ponderosa Pine, grasslands, and deciduous woody draws, producing a bird list more similar to the Black Hills than to that of the surrounding sagebrush-grassland steppe.

Choose Cave Hills for Lat/Long coordinates

Ornithological Summary

At least eight diurnal raptor species (Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, Prairie Falcon) and four owl species (Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech-owl, Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl) have been confirmed nesting in this IBA. In general the avifauna is more similar to the Black Hills than to the surrounding region. This is the only known breeding location of the “white-winged’ race of the Dark-eyed Junco outside of the Black Hills. Northern Saw-whet Owls (NSWO) have nested in nestboxes since 2003; this is the longest-running NSWO breeding project on the continent. A NSWO fall migration banding station was established at Slim Buttes in 2011 as part of the continent-wide Project Owlnet banding station network. In addition, breeding NSWO adults and nestlings have been banded in the IBA since 2012.

Conservation Issues

Fire is the most serious threat – because of the steep and inaccessible terrain, a single fire could destroy most of the forest and grassland habitat. The Keystone pipeline and a related pumping station are planned to be built extremely close to the Slim Buttes; if allowed, there would be considerable noise pollution. High radiation levels near old uranium mines in the south Cave Hills continue to threaten breeding birds, especially a large Prairie Falcon population. Cattle grazing negatively impacts understory growth and riparian areas.


Much of the area is owned and managed by the Sioux ranger district, Custer National Forest, U.S. Forest Service. Not all of the Short Pines hills are within CNF; much of the rest is state School and Public Lands, with a small portion of private land.


Tops and gentle slopes of these buttes are Ponderosa Pine forests and grasslands. Deciduous tree species, primarily Green Ash, occur in shaded wooded draws and along creeks and springs. Steep sandstone cliffs, formations and outcrops occur throughout.

Land Use

The area is managed for multiple-use. The predominant use is for livestock grazing. Recreational opportunies include camping, hunting, picnicking, rock/fossil collecting, and birdwatching. A small owl nestbox project has been running since 2003. Uranium mines operated in the 1950’s in south Cave Hills – these areas have not been reclaimed and still are barren and emit relatively high radioactive levels.

Stay abreast of Audubon

Our email newsletter shares the latest programs and initiatives.