I’m in Custer State Park in the middle of South Dakota’s annual Buffalo Roundup, where the line between the present and the Old West is blurry. We funnel into the valley and thunder toward the gates as thousands of spectators cheer. More than 1,300 bearded beasts bound forward, corralled by riders with bullwhips in hand.
Before the event, a bison burger sits like a rock of regret in my belly as I bounce around the bed of a pickup truck, staring at the majestic animals in front of me. I silently apologize. The names may sometimes be used interchangeably, but there is a difference between buffalo and bison. Despite the title of the event, the animals here are bison.
The goal of the roundup is to drive the herd about five miles—over streams and rough terrain—into corrals, according to Mark Hendrix, the Natural Resource Program Manager at Custer State Park. Hendrix says his favorite part of the roundup is “watching the horseback riders work together. My horse and me out here just running across the prairie—you know, I’ve got my bullwhip, and just taking it all in—it’s one heck of an adrenaline rush. It’s a lot of fun.”
The annual roundup takes place on the last Friday of September against a backdrop of granite peaks and wide grasslands. The Wild West experience may draw attendees, but the real purpose of the roundup is to ensure long-term sustainability of the bison. The roundup serves as an annual check-up for the herd, helping to keep South Dakota’s bison population—once under threat of extinction—disease-free and healthy. What’s crucial for the animals is also exciting for spectators, and 20,000 people from all over the country attended this year’s roundup.
A pep talk and a prayer
Onlookers flock to the park well before dawn to witness the headstrong herd of bison known for causing traffic jams on the park’s Wildlife Loop Road. I count five pairs of fringed chaps before I even arrive at the roundup. I feel out of place without a cowboy hat but I’m welcomed by a family of three volunteers from Iowa. After a few years of attending as spectators, they are wearing GoPros on their cowboy hats and ready to ride. Volunteer Wendy Steinkamp says it snowed about six inches last year but when I ask if she’s feeling nervous, she says no, adding, “Not until we get on our horses.”
Before the roundup, 60 riders gather outside the stables beside their families and horses for a pep talk and prayer. A cowboy stands atop a picnic table. “When it gets cool like this, we get a pretty good run out of them,” he says. “We want to do [the roundup] without injury to the people, horses, or the buffalo. Just keep ‘em moving.”
Bob Lantis, an 84-year-old team leader adds, “My advice is to check your cinches before you start. Other than that—ride and slide.”
Ride and slide
Riders clutch their bullwhips and make their way into the hills and prairies around us. The air is oddly still and the muted colors of the Black Hills make me feel as if I’m watching an old Western movie. More than a thousand bison wait like sitting ducks as the prairie grass sways in the breeze. My cheeks burn in the frigid early morning air and a rainstorm brews on the horizon.
Horses named Whiskey, Hatchet, Bandit, Rocket, and—my personal favorite—Tim carry their respective riders over the prairie. The roundup continues without incident, but that’s not always the case. “When [the bison] fight, they hit, it’s a big clank and it’s a big ‘ole puff of dust—it’s actually kind of cool,” Hendrix says.
I white-knuckle the roll bar as we jostle around in the bed of the truck over rocks and unexpectedly rough terrain, set to a soundtrack of yippin’ and hollerin’ and the rhythmic pounding of hooves. As we head into the final leg of the roundup, the spectators erupt into loud cheers.
For the bison, the finish line brings processing, vaccinations, pregnancy checks for the females, branding for the new calves, and sorting for the ones destined for auction in early November. Afterward, the throngs of spectators migrate to lunch tents where volunteers dish out a hot meal, potato chips, and cookies. I breathe a sigh of relief when I receive my pulled pork sandwich. I don’t think I could’ve stomached another bison burger.
If you go
Next year, the Buffalo Roundup will take place on September 25th at Custer State Park. The event is free, with the option to purchase breakfast and/or lunch.