After a crisp night, the morning sun is beginning to warm the golden, rolling hills of the South Dakota prairie. People have had their cars stopped at the blockade on the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park for hours. They have been waiting in the dark for the road to open. The veterans have hot coffee and doughnuts and are dressed in layers to ward off the night chill of early fall. Finally, the road opens at 6:30 and the long procession of cars will continue along the eight mile road to the elevated south viewing area for the 47th annual Custer Buffalo Round Up. The endless line of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and busses will continue for about three hours until the parking area is packed completely full.
On the other side of the draw the process is being duplicated at the north viewing area. When both parking lots are full, there will be over 14,000 people lining the safety fences to witness what few people have seen since the early 1800s — 1,100 American Bison running across the South Dakota prairie.
All eyes are glued to a distant hill to the south. The stillness is pierced by the crack of a stock whip. Then more cracks are heard and you can begin to hear the cries of the cowboys. Someone in the crowd shouts “Here they come!” as a lone buffalo crests the hill. Then the bulk of the herd pours over the top of the hill. At this distance they are just moving dots. As they get closer, they move together into a living mass of buffalo as they thunder across the prairie at 40 miles an hour.
At this stage, the cowboys are just along for the ride. There is no way they can alter the direction that the buffalo want to go. The terrain is the controlling factor. The hills funnel the buffalo towards an open pasture gate at the corrals. The gate is not that wide and there appears no way that the mass of buffalo running at full speed will fit through it. The herd passes safely into the pasture, where they will stay for a couple of days to calm down before being preg-checked by a veterinarian, getting a battery of shots, and the new calves getting branded.
At one time there were millions of Bison or buffalo roaming the great open spaces of the central North American plains. There were many reasons for the near extinction of the buffalo, but there are three that are intertwined and really stand out — the commercial hunting for hides used in the production of leather and for buffalo robes, the loss of habit due to westward expansion, and the expansion of the rail road westward.
Market hunting began in earnest in 1870 and reached its peak in 1872 through 1874 when, according to railroad reports, shipments of buffalo hides to the east totaled 1,378,359 hides and meat shipments were almost 7 million pounds. By 1887 only 300 buffalo hides were shipped east. In 1889 the Smithsonian Institution commissioned a survey that reported only 1,091 buffalo remaining in North America.
What saved the buffalo from going the way of the dodo bird were forward thinking men like Peter Norbeck, former Governor of South Dakota. In 1914, Norbeck worked with what was to become Custer State Park to purchase 36 buffalo to start its herd. By the 1940s the original buffalo herd had swelled to 2,500. It is the descendants of those original 36 buffalo that 14,000 people come each year to see.
Custer State Park at 71,000 acres is very large but 50,000 acres are classified as forest land. It was obvious that the grassland acreage of the park could not sustain 2,500 buffalo, several hundred feral horses, pronghorn antelope and elk. A management program had to be established. The first step was to remove the horses, then to reduce the number of buffalo and eliminate brucellosis.
“The roundup’s purpose when we first started doing it was to eradicate brucellosis from the herd. By 1966 the herd was certified brucellosis free. The roundup really became the tool that allowed us to manage the herd. We cull off our surplus based on a model we use that takes into account forage production, rainfall and a number of other things, to set the carrying capacity of the range land and then sort off the surplus. The park has been selling live buffalo since 1966,” said Gary Brundige, Resource Program Manager. “This roundup is really to facilitate the auction. The auction is the mechanism we use to bring the herd numbers down to what we can support on the range without damage to the habitat.”
“We’ve been selling live buffalo for 47 years and we average between 300 and 400 head a year,” said Gary Brundige. “Right now we are looking to overwinter about 860 head this year because we are in drought. Our normal overwinter number would be closer to 1,000 — 960 would be in a normal precipitation year. Right now the herd size is close to 1,200 with about 80 mature bulls.”
Does rounding up buffalo sound like something that you would like to do? Then you are in luck because, “For the annual Buffalo Roundup, we have about 20 volunteer riders that are chosen from a draw. People can apply for those slots starting in May. The applications are reviewed to make sure that they are good, experienced riders, then their names are put in the hat and we draw 20 out and those folks are going to get a once in a lifetime opportunity to participate in the roundup,” said Craig Pugsley, Visitor Services Coordinator.
Jack Kersbergan of Brighton, Colo., was one of the lucky 20 in 2008, and once he and his horse arrived there was still an orientation process to go through consisting of a half day lecture on working with buffalo, and some orientation rides to make sure horse and rider were up to par.
“No matter how broke your horse is with cattle, you can never know how he will react to buffalo until you get him in close proximity to one. Some horses just don’t tolerate buffalo,” said Kersbergan. “You ride alongside the buffalo pens and if your horse will not handle buffalo, you don’t make it.”
“They put you through an orientation ride, so they pretty much know if you can handle cross-country riding at full speed. We rode at a full gallop up a pretty steep grade, got to the crest and then we galloped down the other side. It’s all rocks and shale and downed timber because you’re going to get that in the roundup. It looks like rolling grass, but there are big rocks in there. The grass covers the fact that there are holes, and dead falls, and trees, rocks, and everything else underneath that,” said Kersbergan. “You’re following buffalo that once they turn on, they don’t have but one speed, so you’re going as fast as you can, through all that stuff.”
“It’s billed as the last great American adventure, and I believe it,” said Kersbergan. The most common description was that the roundup was an “adrenalin rush.” If you are thinking about going either as a rider or a spectator in 2013, the Roundup will be held on September 30 and now would not be too early to start reserving lodging. ❖