by Mike Whye
While no one can expect to see the massive herds of buffalo that explorers did when crossing the Great Plains more than two centuries ago, it’s possible to take a tour to witness one of the country’s most impressive wildlife sightings: 1,300 buffalo being rounded up at Custer State Park in southwest South Dakota.
The last Friday of September is when about 60 cowboys and cowgirls saddle their horses to guide the buffalo—formally called American bison—down a grassy valley and into two corrals for sorting. On the way to the corrals, the buffalo pass between two hills where about 20,000 spectators watch them pass.
Some riders actually start gathering the buffalo weeks ahead—extending the tour window—because they’d scattered across the 71,000-acre park during the previous year. Only cows and calves go to the public roundup; about 60 bulls, aged four and older, are not herded because they are temperamental. The buffalo going to the corrals are gathered in the park’s southern end for a short time before Friday.
On the last day of the overall roundup, the buffalo, the riders and others in pickup trucks begin moving toward that valley that leads to the corrals (“Driving” is used loosely here because as one cowboy saying goes, “You can tell a buffalo to go anywhere it wants.”) At this time the public is admitted to the park to watch the final phase of the roundup.
The buffalo first come into view when they crest a hill to the south and east of the two viewing areas, each of which has its own entrance. At first, only a few are in view. Then more and more appear until what looks like a brown shaggy carpet is spreading down to the valley where sturdy fences separate them from the visitors. The riders flank the herd as do a dozen or so pickup trucks. Many of those herding the buffalo are in radio contact with one another.
Some riders make popping noises with their whips but are sure to not touch the buffalo because an angry buffalo is the last thing any rider wants to meet. At times, a cow may charge a rider and horse. If that happens, the rider may use a pickup for cover until the cow’s anger subsides.
Ron Tietsort, 58, who has worked the roundup for 20 years, said he keeps his horse moving because if a cow charges him, he will have a head start. Tietsort, a state conservation officer, said some riders may influence the herd’s direction by cautiously crowding the cows leading the herd. Since a buffalo herd is a matriarchal society, those behind usually follow those in the front. “Some of them have been here before,” said Tietsort, “so they know the way.”
Still, because buffalo can run up to 35 miles an hour and turn on a button, Tietsort said riders keep swiveling their heads. He added that when a rider hears a loud huffing sound, that’s a cow getting mad and it’s time to get away from her. The pace of the herd varies. A few buffalo may sprint a bit or gallop but most walk—something that’s fine with those managing the herd because dust poses a health risk to the animals.
Once there were millions
Up to 60 million buffalo lived in North America in the late 1700s. They ranged as far away as parts of Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New York (think of the city of Buffalo, New York). They also were in northern Mexico and the Canadian wilderness. The Rocky Mountains kept most from going west of the plains.
To Native Americans, the buffalo was everything. They used every part of it for meat, bedding, robes, covers for shelters, rope, halters, garden tools, bowls and more. The buffalo was like a four-footed Walmart.
As European-American culture spread west across North America in the 1800s, the buffalo were hunted to near-extinction by the end of the century. To save a small herd he knew about, cattleman James “Scotty” Philip, a South Dakotan, bought 74 of them in 1899. A decade later, Philip had 1,000 buffalo, and many government-owned parks came to him for buffalo to begin their own herds. Custer State Park started its herd by buying 36 of Philip’s buffalo in 1914. Now the Custer herd is the second largest publicly owned herd in the nation; only Yellowstone’s is larger.
This year’s event
This year, the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup is Sept. 27. With so many visitors now, it’s wise to enter the park by 6:30 a.m. but, still, travelers might encounter long lines of vehicles. Usually there’s plenty of time to reach one of the viewing areas before the buffalo are moving toward the valley at 9:30 a.m. For more information, visit https://gfp.sd.gov/buffalo-roundup/.