On the last weekend of September my husband and I attended the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival in South Dakota. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years, but as a teacher I never could, since it’s always held during the last weekend of September. Once I knew I was retiring, though, one of the first things I thought of was that we could go to the Roundup this year, so we’ve been looking forward to it for quite awhile and it was actually the impetus behind our whole Great Adventure – “Let’s do stuff we could never do before!” We made our campground reservations in January – and that’s really something to be said considering our aversion for planning ahead.
It was everything I hoped it would be, and more.
The Roundup is held annually in the fall (this one was the 46th), and has a specific purpose: to maintain a healthy herd that the resources in the park can support. The size of the herd can vary each year, according to weather changes (such as drought) and conditions in the park; 1,300 is the currently published number. During the roundup, every animal is checked and vaccinated. Females are examined to determine if they are pregnant and calves are branded. Most importantly, perhaps, is the culling; every year a certain number of buffalo are sold at auction, held in November. The proceeds last year reached approximately $350,000, and the money stays in the state park system to support its programs. The sale also ensures that the park’s natural resources can support a healthy herd. It’s all part of a system of checks and balances.
About 15,000 people attended this year’s Roundup. There are two viewing sites: North and South. We were pretty confused about which one we wanted to go to, but since our campground led easily to the North side, and a park ranger we talked to indicated that the North side was an excellent choice, that’s where we went. It turned out to be a perfect decision once we realized where the herd would be coming from. We could see the whole thing; the people on the South side were too close to see part of it since the hills blocked their view of the herd.
We set the alarm for 4:00 a.m. that morning, got up in the pitch black to feed the dogs and take them for a walk. I have to confess that my husband did the walking in the dark part while I took care of loading the car with our chairs, camera equipment, water, and other things on our list of what to bring. We left around 5:00, still pitch dark; we noticed that just about everyone else in the campground was up that early, too. Even though we were staying in Custer State Park, we had to drive several miles to the viewing area; Custer is one of the largest state parks in the US, encompassing 71,000 acres.
Parking lots opened at 6:15 and we got to the end of the line at about 5:30, about a mile from the parking lot. As we waited, it was fun to watch the line of headlights grow longer and longer, and eventually we realized that the 6:15 opening time was planned to coincide with sunrise! It’s helpful to be able to see when you’re parking in a prairie. Lots of park staff/volunteers were there to guide us into the right place, and we were happy with our early arrival. Once parked it was a grab-your-chairs-and-run situation, and we got places in the second row from the fence. Would that wire fence hold back all those buffalo if they decided to run this way? Nope. But the cowboys know what they are doing, and so we all pushed forward as much as we possibly could.
The actual roundup was scheduled to begin at 9:30, but it was after 10:00 before we saw any action. That was OK; there were lots of people to talk to, and everyone we met was friendly and having fun. There was a tent where pancakes and coffee were available, plenty of porta-potties, and weather that was delightful. Chilly early morning mist cleared away and the temperature rose into the 80s, clear and sunny.
Finally, we saw dark spots rising above the ridge in front of us, behind the South Viewing area. It was much like an old Western movie – the buffalo crested that ridge, appearing bit by bit, and many people in the crowd noted it sure didn’t look like there were 1,300 of them. From the distance they didn’t even look very big – the herd maintained the same shape as they traversed the prairie. It looked to me rather like the schools of fish in Finding Nemo.
Because of the heat, the cowboys let them move slowly, lumbering across the grass until they got closer to the goal: the gates leading into the large corral area. Near the end, though, we could feel the ground shake and hear the deep rumble of the running beasts, and the crowd cheered and yelled as the animals were driven into the enclosure.
Once the herd came over that ridge, the whole round up happened fast. People took pictures, and videos, and talked and laughed, and the next thing we all knew, it was done. Visitors are welcomed to view the herd in the corrals, and can also watch the process of handling the animals through the chutes and finally back to the larger enclosures or back into the park. Stay tuned!
Life is good.