On a cool late September weekend in southwestern South Dakota, a group of 20 or so lucky lottery winners mounted up at Custer State Park for an honest-to-goodness buffalo roundup. If you're looking for something more American than that — horses, bison, the grassy plains of South Dakota, the rolling Black Hills, storming hooves, clouds of dust, yeehaws, cowboy hats, the whole bit — you'll be searching for a while. The roundup, with a herd of about 1,300 buffalo, is a living, rumbling reminder of what once was commonplace in this part of the West.
And it's something that remains, to this day, uncommonly cool. "Even having grown up in South Dakota, to us, it's still a really cool event. You just don't see it that often. It's crazy," says Lydia Austin, the interpretative programs manager at Custer State Park. "As I tell people when they ask me what my favorite part about it is, it's waking up in the prairies of South Dakota at 6 o'clock in the morning, you're in your truck, and it's usually a beautiful morning, a cold morning ... and you're rounding up buffalo."
A South Dakota Tradition
The 2018 roundup was the 53rd official one at the park, but gathering bison here has been going on for around a century, ever since the first herd — 36 strong — was brought to the area. The herd at times has grown to as many as 1,500, and the roundup now includes an arts festival and other assorted events.
Some 20,000 onlookers come from all over to watch from hillsides as professionals on horseback and in various vehicles, and the lottery-winning riders do their thing. The park gets about 100 applications a year for roundup riders, and once you're picked, you can't do it again for three years.
For someone like Raymond Lang, a 78-year-old retired land developer and construction boss originally from Indiana, a chance to bring in a herd of buffalo is the stuff of Hollywood.
"I'm a wannabe cowboy anyway," says Lang who, along with a friend, trailored his 22-year-old quarter horse mare named Velvet some 2,300 miles (3,701 kilometers) from his home in Marco Island, Florida, to take part in the 2018 roundup. "It's like, for me anyway, I keep waiting to see the Indians come over the ridge. And it's just beautiful. The scenery, the mountains. We forded a couple of streams, our horses swimming across. It's like in the movies."
Managing the Herd
The entire purpose of the roundup is to do what experts call "managing the herd." Custer State Park covers about 71,000 acres (28,732 hectares). With winter approaching, there's simply not as much grass to go around to keep all the buffalo, elk, deer and antelope fed. Austin figures the park in the winter can support only about 1,000 bison (that word, by the way, is interchangeable with buffalo).
So wranglers round up the herd, drive it into the corrals, then sort, test and vaccinate the bison to make sure they're healthy. A few hundred are auctioned off to interested ranchers — bison meat is a booming industry in the U.S. — and the rest are re-released into the fenced park.
"They're our national animal," Austin says. "We have ranchers around here who, that's their livelihood. For the folks who come to Custer State Park ... it's what describes South Dakota, what describes the West. It brings back that history of being out West. You still get that feeling of it."
Bringing Them In
The thing to know about buffalo — who can grow to more than 6 feet tall and can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) — is that they're not the lumbering woolly mammals you may think they are.
"They're very smart animals. That's a problem that you run into with a lot of visitors at the park. They think they're, slow, docile, for lack of a better word 'dumb' animals," Austin says. "Most buffalo are watching you. They're very protective of their personal space. They learn, so they know routes. They remember things. So, they know what the roundup is. They know what's in store for them."
And, yes, buffalo can be dangerous. According to the National Park Service, the bison in Yellowstone Park — which houses the only unfenced herds on public land in the nation — have injured more people in that park than any other animal, including bears. They can run three times faster than humans, too, the NPS says.
"And they can turn on a dime," Austin says. "They use their front legs to turn and then swing their behind around, so they can turn a lot faster than your horses turn, or your truck. They usually go where they want to go."
That means any rider who wants to help bring in these animals can't be, in Old West terms, a greenhorn. The core riders, the professionals, make sure of that, rejecting any volunteers that they see as unfit.
Lang has been on horses since he was 16. Velvet — "she's a good one," Lang says — has herded cattle, pulls wagons, is comfortable with her rider shooting from a saddle and is a good sport horse. They make a perfect pair for the roundup.
"You got to really know what you're doing. Chasing 1,300 buffalo at a full gallop ... and they can be mean," Lang says. "The fun is, you chase 'em .... and you just get 'em running. It's not quite a stampede, but it's pretty close. And you don't want them to stop; they turn around, they'll run you over, and you're done."
The whole drive, from start to finish, lasts less than two hours, Lang says, and maybe 7 miles. But they are some of the most exhilarating few miles a wannabe cowboy could ever dream of.
"It's just a lot of fun," Lang says. "It's really a rush."