Black Hills: The Great Bison Roundup

Our main motivation for skipping the Badlands and rushing to the Black Hills was to partake in the yearly Buffalo festival. Once a year Custer State Park brings in their buffalo herd of over 1000 with a good old fashioned round-up. This event draws 10-15 thousand people!

The weekend festivities include a big arts, crafts, and food fair. There were lots of booths, both chili and Dutch oven cook-offs, craft demonstrations and an auction where you could bid on one of many life size painted buffalos.

We walked around for an hour or so, had lunch, and then took in two demonstrations. One was an introduction to making pine needle baskets. Even though I had actually tried this before, Reen did a much better job with her needles than I did. The second demonstration was on yarn spinning. It was interesting to see how a bag of fur quickly turns into yarn. The very nice older woman giving the presentation explained how she got into raising llama just so she would have a supply for her spinning.

The actual buffalo round-up is held on Monday. We got the scoop on where and when from the park booth at the fair. The gates open around 6:30am, but we’re told to shoot for 6:15am and expect there will already be people waiting. Around 9, they close the gates for safety purposes, so you need to be in by then. Since we’re about 45 minutes away from the corral, its going to be an early morning.

Sunday night before the big day, we packed up everything we would need in a big backpack. The next morning we were up and on the road by 5:30am. It was still pitch black as we pulled out of the campground, but it looked like the other campers were loading up for the same destination.

With about 5 or so miles to go, at about 6am, traffic came to a halt. Yup, there were 5 miles of cars in line to see the roundup. And this was only half the crowd as the viewing is split between two areas. I don’t think we made it into the grounds till around 7:30.

The sun rises over the Black Hills as we wait in traffic.

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We set up our chairs on the hill side amongst the thousands of others and waited for the show. Once situated, I headed over to the big food tent to secure our pancake and sausage breakfast.

We’re in the south viewing area. This is the view across to the north viewing area. The buffalo will be coming through that valley into the corral just out of view to the left.

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Looking down the crowd on our side (and the pancake tent). The crowd actually goes much farther than you can see in the picture, down and around a corner.

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Here they come! The buffalo and the cowboys come into view. Its just like the old days. well, except that there are as many pickup trucks chasing the buffalo as there are horses.

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Through the trees they go.

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Cowboys driving from the rear.

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Here’s where things went a little odd. The “plan”, we believe, was to push the buffalo straight across to the other side of that far hill. Then as a dramatic finish, the buffalo are driven over the hill, directly toward the press cameras, for that classic shot. Unfortunately, as you can see, some of the buffalo, perhaps because they’ve done this before, turned left and slowly walked toward the corral on their own.

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Eventually, they did get most of the buffalo over the hill for the final stampede performance. Here they are entering the corral.

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All safely in the corral. Over the next few days they perform checks on the buffalo and then sort them so they can sell of the excess as the park can only support about 1000 buffalo over the winter. Most of those sold are used to help build up other herds.

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We could’ve headed down to the corral for lunch (buffalo burgers!) and to see them start processing, but we had other sites to see. So we watched the buffalo mill about the corral from a nearby hill for a while until the crowd thinned out, and then headed out.

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