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We were finishing a short stalk up a sloping prairie meadow in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, hoping to head off a small herd of buffalo, when the eagle flushed.

It rose from just below the crest of the sloping "Badlands" meadow we were climbing to look down on the buffalo, and its slow, majestic flapping spooked them.

"Bet you never flushed a golden eagle before," said my guide, Ted Upgren, information director of the state's Game & Fish Commission.

For the record, golden eagles are about the size of eastern wild turkey, but rise with less fuss and effort.

Meantime, the herd had stopped, too far below to get the kind of frame-filling photo I sought.

They stood, the big males in a semicircle in the forefront, guarding the cows and calves. Then at some secret signal the whole herd bolted. They galloped into the valley and raised dust-clouds along the valley floor as they headed through a CinemaScope movie set into the lush flood plain of the Little Missouri River several miles away.

Normally, I don't get to Bismarck, N.D., in December, but last week the Outdoor Writers of America sent me there to attend to organization business.

I could say nice things about Bismarck, but would rather talk about Theodore Roosevelt's former ranch, 140 miles west. Here lies a 40,000-acre national park where buffalo and mule deer and wild mustangs roam and where prairie dogs burrow and sharptail grouse and eagles fly.

Didn't see any antelope, but I did see a three-room cabin where the (then) relatively unknown New York dandy started his part-time ranching career. TR wrote about that, and also wrote about Western hunting, books that are still in print.

Now it is not absolutely true that North Dakota is flat -- there is the occasional butte.

But "flat" is as good a word as any to describe a horizon that stretches like the Atlantic Ocean as far as you can see.

In the western part of the state the prairie has eroded and crumbled into "Badlands," and it is in this dramatic landscape that TR ranched. In today's National Park you'll find the critters relatively tame enough for snapshooting, too.

Which is what I wanted to do, to test my new, automatic-everything camera.

I made this big-time investment in pocket-sized computer electronics on the advice of several photographers whose opinion I value.

"Our eyes are not what they used to be," said Bill McCrae, whose Rocky Mountain pictures grace every outdoor magazine. "But I still prefer to do my own exposure settings."

"I'll bet you'll use the autoexposure most of the time," said Jeff Lowenthal, a free-lance photojournalist in Chicago.

Test films proved the machine could focus faster than any human, and that its various exposure programs are better judges of light than I am -- most of the time.

Wildlife stalking, however, revealed some shortcomings:

First, for wildlife you will need a lens longer than the 210 mm zoom I own, even for such big animals as buffalo and mule deer. A 400 mm is about right.

Second, high contrast scenes will fool any automatic exposure system if you forget to use the spot meter.

Third, the human eye always picks out the area of interest and makes it "appear" larger than it really is. Cameras don't lie, so the mule deer that looks as big as a moving van to you will show up relatively tiny in the resulting slide.

Operator error aside, the new autofocus, autoexposure reflex cameras really are a quantum leap forward from the match-needle exposure meter.

And anyone planning a trip out west might think of swinging through North Dakota to see cattleman's prairie. There's a great deal of that -- populated by just 600,000 friendly Dakotans. With half the population of Erie County they have to be friendly.

I haven't seen the more fertile eastern part of the state. But I know TR's park is worth a visit, perhaps pitching camp in the cottonwoods for a day or so while you photo hunt for big game.

Just remember to bring a long telephoto lens. And lots of film.

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