Shuffling Off With Buffalo

Bison_CusterSP-LAH_7475American Bison are big. I never realized just how big they are until we were surrounded. As the huge, shaggy beasts leaned against our little Prius, leaving large, muddy swipes, it slowly dawned on us that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.

Pete and I were in Custer State Park, right in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota. In search of a much-needed break from a very hectic year, we’d arranged to use a little cabin for a week of R & R. However, no matter how much I planned to rest, I couldn’t resist heading out for a few shots of the resident wildlife. The park is known for its prairie dogs, wild donkeys, pronghorn, and especially bison.

Prairie dogs were everywhere, and I snapped off picture after picture—until another car pulled up. The passengers all got out, scaring all my subjects back into their holes.

Wild Donkeys_CusterSP-LAH_7283A short while later, we stopped for photos of the wild donkeys. They were cute enough, but what I really wanted were photographs of bison. The thing was, we couldn’t find any. A herd of over 1,300 animals had somehow disappeared into thin air.

After two days of fruitless searching, we realized that we could pray for bison. That may sound a little odd, but it was certainly worth a try. What did we have to lose? After all, God certainly knew where they were. So we pulled over and asked God to please show us some bison. Back on the road, we agreed to head south, and after a couple of seemingly random turns, we were rewarded with a huge herd up ahead on a distant hillside. Prayers answered!

Bison_CusterSP-LAH_7307Well, we had bison, but I wanted pictures. We needed to be closer. The animals ignored us, munching the drying grasses and slowly drifting in our direction. We decided to wait.

They got closer…

Bison_CusterSP-LAH_7374and closer…

Bison_CusterSP-LAH_7345and closer…

and before we knew it, there were bison on every side. We played chicken with the electric window—down for a photo, then up as a gigantic horned head aimed for the opening. I had no intention of being another statistic in a summer filled with tourists being gored.

Bison_CusterSP-LAH_7440Most of the herd was comprised of mothers and calves, but there were enough bulls to give us pause. They didn’t seem that big from a distance!

It turned out that the bison were all in the south end of the park because the annual bison round-up was scheduled for a couple of days later. That sounded like fun so we made plans to attend.

Bison roundup_CusterSP-SD_LAH_7569The morning of the round-up, we got up at 4:30 am, drove the hour to the north viewing area, and then waited in line for the parking lot to open at 6:16. Would you believe we were stopped five miles from the lot entrance? Happily, there was plenty of room, and we finally exited our car well after dawn, around 7:30. We picked a spot with a good view of the valley and settled down to wait.

It was three hours later when a row of trotting horses appeared over the ridge, with the bison thundering right behind them. Trucks and riders worked together to guide the running animals toward the gate into the corral complex.

Bison roundup_CusterSP-SD_LAH_7605It was a thrill to watch them expertly maneuver the reluctant herd, wheeling to cut off strays. Then, far too soon, it was over. The new calves will be branded and vaccinated, while everyone gets a check-up. The older females will be culled and sold as meat (the proceeds help support the state park), keeping the herd to a size that the park can sustain.

Bison roundup_CusterSP-SD_LAH_7689We didn’t stick around for the bison burger BBQ, choosing instead to go back to our cabin for lunch and naps.


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