When cows ran wild: Annual bison roundup a taste of old West

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More than 1,300 bison are herded into corrals in the annual Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival in Custer, S.D.


All the elements of the traditional West were in play: mounted riders speeding across the grassland gathering and directing buffalo, a rising cloud of dust created by the running herd, the neighs of horses, the crack of whips, and the hoots and yelps of riders trying to persuade a fast-moving herd to change direction.

It’s not a scene from “Dances with Wolves” but the annual Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival in Custer, S.D., which was selected as the 2015 Top Event by the American Bus Association.

Parking lots opened at 6:15 a.m. and closed at 9:00 a.m., with the roundup beginning at 9:30 a.m. However, the buffalo did not feel compelled to adhere to this published schedule of events. At 4:25 a.m. vehicles were already lined up for miles, waiting for entrance into the parking lot that didn’t open for another one hour and 50 minutes.

Was it the annual buffalo roundup or the annual buffalo spectator roundup?

Like a scene out of an old Western but happening just a few yards from you, approximately 1,300 bison are driven into corrals in front of more than 15,000 spectators in the annual September spectacle.

The illusion is broken a bit when the dozens of authentic riders on horseback are joined by trucks in gathering the bison, but it’s the riders on the frontline doing the real work.

Twenty of the riding positions are open to the public through an online application process.

The website warns, “This can be very strenuous work for riders and horses. The terrain is steep and often rocky. Horses should be shod. Rough country running should be expected. Horses will work in close proximity to buffalo, and must be able to react quickly. Stream crossings may be encountered. Jumping fallen trees may be necessary. Do not bring horses that are not fit.”

In summary, the site states, “This is not easy riding!”

The buffalo came in two separate groups. The first group appeared over the hills to loud cheers from the crowd, who was getting restless as the clock approached 11 a.m. and no action was yet to be seen.

Initially, the buffalo appeared very cooperative and seemed to be doing exactly what they were supposed to do like a trained circus act—run down the hill, turn toward the corrals and enter through the open gate.

At the last minute, something happened, and the buffalo made a quick change in direction, running away from the corral entrance and giving the crowd a better show as the wranglers worked to re-direct the herd and once again encourage them to enter the corrals.

At one point, four pronghorn antelope joined in the action speeding by, hearts pounding and running across both the open area and the fence perimeter trying to escape the buffalo, riders and vehicles headed their way.

The second grouping of buffalo was even more reluctant to head toward the corrals. They sped over the hill and did not make the crucial change in direction to head toward the corrals. It took some time, talent and effort for the riders to re-direct this group into the corrals, and they were given a big round of applause and cheers once they accomplished their task.

After the buffalo are corralled, they are branded and vaccinated. One of the park rangers explained that previously corralled buffalo will be handled the day of the roundup and not any of the herd that was just driven into the corrals.

Buffalo are “excitable,” he said, and they need to calm down. Hundreds are sold at auction, and about 900 are released back into Custer State Park until the next annual roundup.

The number of buffalo released is based upon many factors, including the moisture in the soil. The park rangers want to ensure there will be enough grass to feed the buffalo released back into the park.

The 2016 Buffalo Roundup will rumble through on Friday, Sept. 30.

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