116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Back from the brink
Each September Custer State Park’s buffalo, once near extinction, are rounded up
Sep. 19, 2022 5:00 am
It was 6 a.m. when my husband and I joined a long line of cars waiting to enter South Dakota’s Custer State Park, beginning a stop-and-start journey that would take us nearly two hours. Our destination was worth the tedious drive: the park’s annual Buffalo Roundup, when more than 1,000 of the magnificent animals are brought into corrals. The event is one of the nation’s top wildlife events, drawing more than 20,000 spectators to both the roundup and an arts festival that continues the Western theme.
The roundup is a critical management tool for the buffalo (while the animals are more accurately called bison, in the United States the two terms are used interchangeably). The park’s grasslands can only support about 1,400 bison, and so each year several hundred animals are selected to be sold at auction. The roundup also facilitates vaccinations, branding and health checkups.
In the weeks before the big day, herdsmen start gathering the bison in from the park’s 71,000 acres. Then on the morning of the roundup, cowboys bring them the last mile into the corrals, whooping and hollering as the animals gallop at full speed past crowds watching from the surrounding hills.
Reaching the viewing area after our slow drive, we joined thousands of other people eager to see this remarkable spectacle. The official starting time came and went with no explanation why the stars of the event were delayed, but finally a report circulated through the crowd that the herd was approaching. A black spot appeared on a distant hill, and then another and another. Soon bison were flowing over the ridge in a living wave, so many that it was difficult to distinguish individual animals.
At last the leading edge of the herd passed by us, a phalanx of galloping beasts that made the ground shake with their hoofs, a great cloud of dust in the air above them. The stampede showcased the animals’ exceptional strength, agility and speed. Despite their bulk (males can exceed 2,000 pounds), bison can run up to 35 miles per hour and survive weather ranging from scorching summer heat to raging blizzards.
And then in a few minutes it was over. The herd disappeared over a hill, headed to the corrals where they would be examined and sorted, leaving in their wake a palpable sense of awe.
The buffalo roundup is an echo of what once happened naturally. When Europeans first came to North America, more than 30 million bison roamed the interior of the continent. By the late 1800s the once-plentiful bison teetered on the edge of extinction, victims of over-hunting, new bovine diseases, and growing competition for grass and water from horses and cattle. The U.S. government did little to mitigate their decline, recognizing that without the sustenance provided by the buffalo herds subduing the Indian tribes of the Great Plains would be easier.
Thankfully, grassroots efforts in several locations saved the species, and gradually the population rebounded. Today Custer State Park’s population of about 1,400 bison is one of the largest publicly owned herds. Breeding stock from the park have helped establish and replenish herds around the nation.
At the roundup, the event wasn’t over once the animals had raced past the viewing stand. My husband and I followed the crowd down to the corrals, where we watched as cowboys skillfully guided bison into the area where veterinarians and their assistants waited. Up close, I marveled at the massive bodies and dense, brownish-black coats of the buffalo. In the first pen, a half dozen animals were snorting their displeasure and occasionally kicking at the sides of the corral so hard they made the metal shake.
“Just give them a minute,” one of the men running the nearby chute said. “One of them will figure out that it needs to go into the chute. And once one goes, the others will follow.”
The cowboy explained that this characteristic aided greatly in the annual roundup, as any animal that they’d missed would eventually find their way to the corrals of their own accord. “They’ll stand outside the gate waiting to be let in, because they want to be with the rest of the herd,” he said.
I stood for a long time by the pen, fascinated by the behaviors of each new mix of animals. Some were relatively docile, while others were hard to handle, even the young calves. Most impressive of all were the bulls, who stood more than six feet tall and a dozen feet long. I watched as the bison were divided into two groups, with mature animals going for a quick checkup in one area while calves were sent to another for tagging, branding, vaccinating and deworming. Even with machine-powered vises that held the animals tight as they were being worked on, the workers had to be constantly alert.
At last it was time to go. On our way back to our car I had a conversation with a park ranger who seemed to be enjoying the event as much as I was. “Do the bison have individual personalities?” I asked her.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “The herdsmen who work with them regularly get to know them quite well. Some are easy going and some are pretty hard to work with. And the old bulls, the ones isolated from the rest of the herd — well, those are the ones you really don’t want to tangle with. We try to leave them alone as much as possible. They’ve earned their retirement.”
Later that day we enjoyed the Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival held near the park’s State Game Lodge. Cowboy bands played Western music and vendors sold a wide array of handcrafted items, many with a buffalo theme. After dark, a hot-air balloon glow provided the perfect ending to what had been an exceedingly memorable day. We felt fortunate to have seen one of the largest bison herds in the world, part of a species that, thankfully, has come back from the brink of extinction.
If you go
What: Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival
When: Festival is Sept. 29 to Oct. 1; roundup is Sept. 30
Where: Custer State Park in Custer, South Dakota
More information: travelsouthdakota.com, (605) 773-3301