Catch the Thrill of the Old West at South Dakota’s Annual Bison Roundup
“This one’s gonna hurt!” the driver warned us as we braced ourselves for some particularly gnarly terrain while riding in the bed of a pick-up truck.
I white-knuckled the roll bar with one hand and my camera with the other as I assumed a squat position to avoid being ejected into the open fields of Custer State Park in South Dakota. It was the 54th annual Buffalo Roundup, and I was in the midst of it.
As it turns out, the buffalo aren’t actually buffalo — they’re bison. Bison have beards, buffalo do not. Once I overcame the shock of that fact, I dove headfirst into the Wild Wild West buzz surrounding this unique event.
What is it about seeing over a thousand bison rounded up that puts people in good spirits? Perhaps it’s the thrill, the portal into a bit of Western past, the dash of danger, or the unpredictability. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but I was totally there, caught up in it, and in the best of spirits. I was to report from an open-air truck and had been told by the park rangers to come prepared for a hell of a ride.
Why are they rounding bison in 2019?
Although this large-scale corral has pragmatic purposes, serving as the yearly health check-up for a sizable herd of about 1,300 bison, the initial draw for visitors is that of getting a real-life glimpse into the old Wild West, which in South Dakota is very much still a thing. The event itself has grown considerably over the years, starting with just 200 spectators in the mid-1960s to approximately 20,000 Roundup enthusiasts this year.
From a health standpoint, the Roundup makes pregnancy checks for the females, branding of the calves, and vaccinations to help keep them disease-free, all possible. In addition, it serves as a long-term sustainability method to control the population and further the goal of saving the American bison. An exciting tradition? Yes. A necessary tradition? Also yes.
The pre-roundup suspense builds
The actual morning of the roundup was an early one, as promised. The weather switch had flipped from summer to autumn seemingly overnight, dropping the temperature from warm to morning frost and changing the leaves from lasting summer green to a radiant yellow. Prior years had brought sunshine, cold, and even six inches of snow. The weatherman had declared a hefty rainstorm on the horizon that we could only hope would hold off until after the bison were gathered up this time around. The wickedly crisp air actually signified change — the bison knew what was coming.
South Dakota’s Black Hills, complete with undulating plains and craggy granite mountaintops, were on point as the setting for the Buffalo Roundup. Nature couldn’t have picked a better backdrop if she tried. When we arrived, it was still dark, and a line of cars waited to get into the park, stretching out from the grounds seemingly for days.
“You can get here at 6:15 AM, but people will be lined up at 3:30 AM,” a park ranger had told me the day prior.
He wasn’t wrong. The onlookers could choose between two viewing areas, the north and south, where a decent amount of waiting ensues. No matter which way a visitor chooses, there’s plenty of both time and scenic surroundings to build suspense for the arrival of the star players as they crest over the hill and into the valley. The onlookers also have buffalo hats from the arts festival and pancakes at the roundup breakfast to keep themselves warm.
Roundup o’clock and the excitement begins
I stood beneath a sky that teased rain and allowed myself to be amped up by the cowboys addressing the 60 volunteer riders and their badass horses.
“My advice is to check your cinches before you start,” said Bob Lantis, the still-participating 84-year-old roundup team leader, imparting his well-earned wisdom to the group of riders lined up. “Other than that, ride and slide.”
Pep talk over, they prayed. I dipped my head and felt the fizz of excitement amongst the riders. It was almost time. The group was comprised of Custer State Park staff, and regular, core riders like Molly Olivier, Lantis’s daughter and one of the first-ever cowgirls to participate in the roundup. They also had 20 volunteers, who each year are chosen through an application process. You actually can apply for next year’s ride via the roundup’s website, provided you have the necessary expert-level riding experience, your own horse, and, I can only assume, a fair amount of gusto.
While we loaded into safari-style trucks that served as back-up assistance for the cowboys and cowgirls, the bison roamed the muted grasslands of the prairie in anticipation. As the countdown for the anticipated 9:30 AM go-time drew closer, a stillness took over the air. The bison were sitting ducks — the cowboys and cowgirls trotted into place based on well-cultivated strategies amongst the three participating teams, aptly named Red, White, and Blue.
And then we were rolling, literally. The cowboys and cowgirls took the lead, gathering and leading the bison, which seemed surprisingly cooperative. Our trucks bounced along the fields, following in their path and adding to the thrill. Like any good film, it was a slow build.
The bison migrated from dotting the hillsides to galloping alongside our truck, their beards wet with grassland dew and spit. The horses navigated stream crossings and unexpected prairie terrain like experts. The whole scene had all the gritty elements of a classic western movie — without the shootout, of course. Bullwhips cracked, hooves pounded, and the cowboys and cowgirls yipped and yelled, creating the perfect soundtrack.
The riders all worked together, communicating via radio, hand signals, and old-fashioned hollerin’ to lead the bison toward the corrals near the patient crowd. As we funneled into the valley, nearing the gates, one cheeky bison broke free from the herd, causing quite the hoopla amongst spectators who were clearly unprepared for the rush of an unexpected plot twist. While the cowboys worked to round up the escapee, the rest of the bison galloped in a dense pack, pacing back and forth, panting and kicking dust in their wake.
“We can’t hold them too much longer!” one of the lead cowboys yelled.
Just then, the crowd erupted as the last member rejoined his group. The herd ran the final stretch to enthusiastic cheers from spectators who had momentarily forgotten about the frigid morning temperature. Over one thousand 1,200-1,400 pound wild bison had just been driven to the corrals by real cowboys and cowgirls — and all before noon.
The post-roundup action
After the bison had been herded the five miles into the corrals, park staff selected about 200 of the animals to be sold, and about 10 of the males were put back into the park for reproduction purposes. The vaccinations and other checks are accomplished over the span of a few days, and then in early November, the bison auction occurs.
All that excitement makes you hungry, hence the presence of a collection of streaming lunch tents beside the action. The throngs of spectators migrated to the tent area where volunteers dished out a hot meal with bagged potato chips and cookies. Fingers were tightly crossed that lunch was not buffalo burgers. It wasn’t, and coffee and hot chocolate were a sweet bonus.
Sitting over his steaming lunch, Mark Hendrix, one of the cowboys and the natural resource program manager at Custer State Park, could barely hide his fondness for the event. “It’s a lot of fun. This is my eighth roundup I’ve done and it never gets boring. Every year is just as exciting as the last one.”
How to attend the roundup
If you’re all jazzed up about seeing a bit of the Old West for yourself, plan for the last Friday of every September. Next year’s will take place on September 25. The event itself is free, but if you’d like to indulge in the post-roundup lunch to bring the experience full-circle, it’s about $16. Breakfast is also available for on-site purchase starting at 6:15 AM; you’ll be thankful for a warm coffee or tea, not to mention the pancakes. The roundup usually takes around two hours, but due to the unpredictable nature of the bison, the exact timing is a roll of the dice.
Visitors can fly into Rapid City and make the 40-minute drive to Custer State Park to stay at the nearby Sylvan Lake Lodge, which has cozy cabins and lodge rooms, an on-site restaurant, and multiple hiking trails that leave right from the property. Camping for the event is also available inside the park.
An arts festival accompanies the event, for those looking to browse some local crafts and goods. Driving Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway, as well as visiting Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, are all activities to make a well-rounded weekend out of it. Make sure to stuff your face with Lintz Bros special pizza of the month and a caramel bun from Baker’s Bakery — as all those South Dakotan activities are sure to work up a healthy appetite.