South Dakota. The Mount Rushmore State. The state that has more cows than people by almost five to one.
It’s an unbelievably beautiful state. From the sprawling prairies to the jagged Black Hills, from Badlands National Park to Custer State Park, there’s no shortage of scenery to take in here. Or things to explore.
But, even with all the breathtakingly beautiful things to do and see across the state, there was one reason in particular I wanted to get to South Dakota in September. One experience I had to be a part of. An annual event that I had heard so many incredible things about—but have never actually known anyone to witness in person. A day when nature’s most incredible creatures are front and center in a way that only this state could do right. And that event was their annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup.
Because once a year the state rounds up the nearly 1,300 South Dakota bison that call Custer State Park home—a herd that also happens to be the largest publicly-owned herd in the world—driving them in to vaccinate them, brand them and administer pregnancy tests. Most of the bison are then released back into the park, while about 285 of them will then be sold at an auction. All of this is done to keep the bison herd in the park at a stable, sustainable number.
And this year (the roundup’s 53rd year), despite a dusting of snow in the park and colder than usual September temperatures the morning of the roundup (hello, 35 degrees), 15,700 spectators (including yours truly) still came out to experience and be a part of this annual bison roundup in South Dakota, which also happens to be one of the most talked about events in the state.
Spectators came from as far as New Jersey, and riders—which I’m about to explain—came from as far as Florida. Because, yes, you can actually ride and help herd and drive the bison during the roundup as well. And it’s one of the most respected ways to participate in the event.
Riders had to apply by early June for consideration, and then 20 riders are chosen annually by a lottery system. Riding in the Custer buffalo roundup means you bring your own horse, tack (saddle, ropes, whips, tools), and you’re right in the mix, herding the buffalo across the park. It’s as close as you can get.
“The thing about it is, once you get on a horse—and you’re sitting there and waiting and it’s kind of dull—but once those buffalo start moving, you’re into it. And you forget about everything else. There ain’t no troubles that you have at home, there ain’t no troubles that you have at the stock market or anything else. All you’re thinking about is getting after those buffalo."
– Bob Lantis
And 83-year-old Bob Lantis—who has been riding in the Custer State Park buffalo roundup in South Dakota for 45 years (this year was his 46th roundup)—is absolutely spot on. Because as soon as you hear, and see the herd come over the hill in the park, you forget about everything except for what’s right in front of you: 1,300 thundering bison.
There’s just something about speeding over the grasslands (I was invited by the state to ride in the bed of a truck during the roundup—a very exclusive and coveted invitation) as a herd of bison thundered by that I’ll never forget. They’re magnificent creatures, and to see them this close—close enough to hear them grunt and groan and to see their warm breath on this cold fall day—is a once in a lifetime experience that lived up to—and exceeded—everything I had heard about the roundup.
As we drove the herd towards the corrals I could see the thousands of spectators watching (and cheering) from the two designated viewing areas—a north and a south area—as we made our way across the grasslands. There was a harmony and beauty to the drive that I can’t explain. The cowboys and cowgirls commanded the pack of bison with a grace I’ve never seen before. It was as if they were one with the herd.
I was in awe of it all.
By 10:45 am, about 45 minutes after we started out on this little adventure, our jobs were done, and the bison were driven into the corrals. Another successful Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup in the books.