By Sherry Bunting (@agmoos)
Imagine millions of buffalo thundering across grasslands extending into what seems infinity….
There are a few billion more humans on the planet today than when settlers first homesteaded the Great Plains. Buffalo numbers dwindled, but over the past 100 years, herds like the one at Custer State Park, South Dakota, have bolstered the North American population to half a million.
On September 25, 2015, a record 21,000 people watched 15 park staff and 30 volunteer cowboys and girls gather-in around 1200 head of buffalo during the park’s 50th annual Buffalo Roundup — a far cry from the 200 people attending the first roundup in 1965.
While the roundup has a purpose for vaccinating, sorting sale stock and branding, it is also an event shared with the public to appreciate.
A month-long process, the work begins with locating the bison throughout the park so that on Roundup Day the groups can be easily brought together and pushed past droves of spectators to the corrals for the variety of annual management tasks.
The event is both practical and “spiritual” notes Craig Pugsley who has since retired from the park service.
He has been here for at least 40 of the 55 annual roundups and he says the attendance really ramped up after the movie “Dances with Wolves” recaptured America’s appreciation of the West and its buffalo. The event also spawns a weekend of art festivals and activities that bring end-of-season tourism dollars to the local economy.
One year (2016), cattle rancher and then Speaker of the House Dean Wink was the South Dakota flag bearer. He has ridden the buffalo roundup quite a few times, but bearing the state flag was a special honor in 2016.
Two years previous, in 2014, both Dean and his wife Joan rode as they have several years before.
In 2018, I was surprised to learn I knew someone else riding, cattle rancher Scott Phillips, in appreciation for his work on the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission.
In 2016 year, I met this interesting old-timer, Bob Lantis. He has ridden in at least 42 Custer Roundups. He was for many years the herdsman. In 2016, I found him surrounded by the international press pool of photographers and reporters fascinated by him and his ‘killer horse’ Chip. They were hanging on every word Lantis said as he gave this advice on avoiding the prairie dog holes when there’s no time to pick your path. What a metaphor for life.
“Dig your heels deep in the stirrups, keep your eyes forward, and go!” — Bob Lantis.
Wish you were there? Me too. So…. ‘saddle up’ and ‘ride’ along (photos, captions and slideshow below from 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018!)
The morning is crystal clear and cold. At 31 degrees, I need my ice scraper to lift the frozen film of overnight dew clinging to the windshield!
Sometimes it even snows, like in 2018.
By 6 a.m. as the line of cars snake into the park, the temp reaches 45. Some years, the temp will go from 30 in the early morning to topping 80 by mid-afternoon!
Crowds assemble and enjoy a pancake breakfast. The media area includes journalists from around the world and two documentary film crews, including Smithsonian.
In the media area, we are each given a number designating a truck to hop on when the herd passes by… to follow along. 8 trucks. Lots of cameras.
A delayed start safely clears the park of vehicles and riders not working the roundup. I fiddle with photographing grasslands onto which the thundering herd will appear. Rainbow ribbons of color evidence of the year’s moisture.
We wait… Then special guests arrive from down off Mount Rushmore. An entertaining foursome!
Harbingers of the thunder to come, prairie dogs perch and listen while the ‘begging burros’ of the park high-tail it out ahead of the horsemen and a first set of buffalo on the ridge.
That first glimpse of the accumulating herd… and then the flag bearers… light gleaming through proud fabric in the late morning sun.
Things go smoothly until they reach the merging point when the run for the corrals gets intense. 40 odd head successfully double back a few times over the hill. This makes for some crowd-pleasing wrangling by core leaders of the cowboy brigade.
There’s buffalo herd manager Chad Kremer on the dark horse.
Again the rebels break loose and double back. Bison run fast. Good horses and smart riders run faster and manage to head them off.
The crowd goes wild when deer and antelope mix into the fray. Guess the park animals soon realize it’s not a normal day at the park!
Safety is critical… Riders learn behaviors to watch for as the buffalo mill about between two hillsides full of spectators.
A line of riders forms to protect the media after we have jumped off the trucks.
Once the Bison are well collected and moving together in the right direction, it’s time to squeeze them closer together and speed up the push to the corrals. Run the gauntlet, if you will. Don’t be fooled by the whips. They are used simply to make noise to get the bison moving in the desired direction for the desired goal.
Buffalo — like other species living in finite resource areas — are as much mythical creatures as they are animals whose survival requires some practical management from humans. The Custer Buffalo roam 71,000 acres, but herd manager Chad Kremer and resource manager Gary Brundige evaluate the grasslands to decide how many buffalo to overwinter.
Using a random selection process, they pull for sale a portion of the calves of a certain weight as well as some of the non-pregnant females. They also pull a portion of the bulls to leave the herd with a 1 to 5 ratio of bulls to cows. The goal is to get the winter herd to a number that matches what the grasslands can support. For 2014 and 2015, the winter herd targets were 950. For the previous two years, the winter herd targets were 800 due to drought.
Custer State Park was established in the early 1900s after the 1874 Goldrush left in its wake a depression and decimation of resources, Pugsley explains. The Park was established by Governor Peter Norbech. 2014 was the Centenial Year for the buffalo herd’s reintroduction at Custer State Park. The bloodlines go back to 5 calves rescued by Fred Dupree from an 1881 buffalo hunt. Dakota territory rancher Scotty Philip eventually bought that herd (about 70 head). Then, in 1914, Custer State Park purchased from that herd as the root of the 1200 to 1400 head herd at the park today.
Pugsley gives both men a lot of credit for having the foresight to save the buffalo. Today, “the buffalo play a pivotal role at the park in managing the grasslands,” he says, adding that they are vaccinated to maintain a Brucellosis-free herd.
An auction in November of the animals selected for sale will yield funds going right back into managing the herd at Custer State Park. Buyers come from all over the world. The animals bring good prices as breeding stock and for harvest because of their management and the pure bloodlines back to original herds.
“There is a science to this,” says Pugsley. “Buffalo are nomadic. They move and graze. When managed properly, bison keep the grasslands healthy and the grasslands sustain the buffalo.
Perhaps most important, in the absence of predators “culling” the herd, or hunters as in the case of elk and deer; cowboys take care of managing the buffalo similar to the way they manage their cattle — so the herd can not only survive, but thrive.
I’ll leave you with a slide show below from 2018, the year it snowed overnight into the wee hours of the morning. It was the last Custer Buffalo Roundup I attended.