The Great South Dakota Buffalo Roundup
In which I help real cowboys corral hundreds of buffalo (well, American bison) during South Dakota's annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
South Dakota's Custer State Park is home to around 1,200 to 1,500 head of American bison, which must be rounded up each fall to be counted, culled, and cared for.
Around almost every bend are pronghorn antelope grazing on the shoulder, big horn sheep scrambling up a slope, yipping prairie dogs popping out of the ground, or a lone coyote loping through the grass.
You're also likely to run into a buffalo-jam. Custer is home to one of the nation's largest herds of free-range buffalo —which aren't technically buffalo at all, but American bison (or you can use their Sioux name, tatanka, which really just means "really big thing").
By summer's end, the park's buffalo number 1,200 to 1,500. To keep the herd at a sustainable level, the state culls it down to about 700 or 800 head and sells the balance to other herds and private farms. In order to do this, they need to round up the buffalo, which is why I flew into Rapid City at the end of September.
This city slicker was going to help bring in the herd.
At first I was disappointed that I'd have to ride in a truck rather than have my own horse—until I saw the professional cowboys and cowgirls in action. There's a lottery amongst truly expert horsemen to win a chance to ride in the round-up, and those without serious equestrian experience (me, for example) need not apply.
I stayed at Custer Park Game Lodge —a log cabin mini-mansion that was once Calvin Coolidge's summer White House—and woke to the sound of someone strangling seagulls.
This turned out to be a flock of two dozen wild turkeys gossiping as they pecked their dawn breakfast off the back lawn.
It was a welcome wakeup gobble, though, as I still had to get out to the stock pens, loft my camera, and talk my way into the bed of a pickup truck alongside a couple of real photojournalists.
As my truck pulled out, a phalanx of 40 cowboys galloped up a hillside and disappeared over the rise. They were headed off to round up the smaller, southern herd; we were going after the northern one.
Soon, our pickup was flying across hills that glowed autumn gold in the early morning light and looked deceptively soft and rolling when they were, in fact, composed mainly of large rocks.
We were tossed about like popcorn as the pickup jounced and jarred across areas of the park where the roads don’t go. I knew my body was already blooming with bruises, but twenty minutes later I forgot all about the pain.
We had found the buffalo.
Driving the Herd
There's nothing like the sensation of driving more than 1,000 shaggy, thundering beasts across the rolling prairies under a cobalt sky.
Before me stretched a sea of humped brown backs and shaggy black forequarters.
This restless throng of lowing, grunting animals flowed up and over the hill ahead, disappeared into the valley on the other side, and reappeared in the distance to crest another hill.
I suddenly had a real sense of what it must have been like 150 years ago, when great migrating herds blackened the plains in an unbroken multitude stretching to the horizon.
Up close, the beasts were even more impressive, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds, able to outrun a horse at a sprint, and capable of turning on a dime—and of pulverizing anyone foolish enough to get bounced out of the bed of his pickup.
Before I could take it all in, we were in the thick of things. Hooves thundered on all sides as our truck plunged into the undulating sea of brown backs. Cowboys and cowgirls galloped around us, whistling and hollering and cracking long whips in the air, sometimes wheeling off to chase strays.
The air was rank with animal sweat, the sun was blistering my neck, my body was bruised and battered, I was choking down a ton of dust...and I loved every second of it. I was grinning like a maniac, shooting photographs willy-nilly with one hand and using the other to slap the side of the pickup and yell "HYAAHH!" at the beasts.
Before long, we came into an amphitheater of hills where the earth-shaking, undulating river of buffalo surging before us joined the stream of the southern herd. The trucks and horses mustered to form one long line and push the full herd toward the pens in the distance.
Back at the Corral...
Once the park's northern and southern herds are reunited, cowboys drive them toward the corrals and the waiting crowds.
The buffalo roundup draws thousands of spectators, and as we funneled down a valley toward the corral, the ridges on either side of us sprouted long strings of people, looking for all the world like bands of Sioux warriors about to ambush us in some old wagon train movie.
With the buffalo corralled, the cowboys got busy sorting cows and bulls, checking tags and collars, and branding the new calves. I leaned on a fence and watched awhile before turning to find a ride back to Rapid City.
I'd like to think those around me mistook the swagger in my walk for the sign of a real cowboy, headed off in search of more strays, instead of the broken gait of a bruised and battered New Yorker off in search of the biggest bottle of ibuprofen he could find and, oddly, still grinning ear to ear.
When You Go...
- Buffalo Roundup (www.travelsd.com/Events/Buffalo-Roundup)
- Custer State Park (605-255-4515, gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer)
- Custer Park Game Lodge (800-658-3530, www.custerresorts.com, $95–$160)