CUSTER, S.D. – Two-year-old Jameson Maxwell sat mesmerized as nearly 1,000 bison rumbled across the prairie in western South Dakota, the massive creatures racing at speeds of up to 50 mph in the annual Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park.
“He really enjoys it. He was saying, ‘Yee-haw.’ He thinks he’s going to catch one,” his mother, Maria Maxwell, said as she watched the toddler perfect his roping skills after the event.
Maxwell and her son were among thousands of people from all over the world who descended on South Dakota recently for a taste of the Old West and a chance to see one of the most iconic American creatures.
Officials created the Buffalo Roundup nearly 50 years ago to manage the bison herd at Custer State Park. It has since become a multi-day event that draws people from as far away as Germany, Australia and New Zealand.
Tens of millions of bison, also known as buffalo, once roamed most of North America before overhunting reduced the population to about 1,000 animals by the turn of the 20th century. Subsequent conservation efforts helped rebuild the herds, though not anything close to the numbers they were at when they roamed free across the Great Plains.
Visitors to the 47th annual Buffalo Roundup rose before dawn for this year’s roundup and packed Custer State Park to watch the bison being corralled into pens. About 225 to 250 of the animals will be sold and shipped across North America, said Chad Kremer, the herd manager at Custer State Park. The buffalo will supplement existing herds, help start new ones or be used for meat.
Many spectators sat for hours at two designated viewing areas in 40-degree temperatures, keeping warm with blankets and hot chocolate. Shortly after 10 a.m., the first few buffalo began to peek out over a rolling hill as spectators began cheering with excitement. Soon, nearly 1,000 of the mighty animals began barreling across the landscape, down the hill, around a bend and into a waiting pen.
“It’s something you can only get in South Dakota,” said 42-year-old Ken Asbridge, who traveled from North Carolina for the event. “It’s part of America’s past. The buffalo went away, and now it’s coming back.”
As temperatures began to increase by midmorning, several of the animals slugged along. Kremer said the warmer weather had tired the bison and they didn’t want to move until the cowboys and cowgirls pushed them further into the pens. The animals will stay in the pens until the new ones are branded, others vaccinated and the cows checked for pregnancy.
The goal of the South Dakota event is to keep the head in Custer State Park at about 1,000 bison, Kremer said. Those chosen for sale were auctioned off in November.
Fewer bison were being corralled this year than in the past because the park’s herd count has been down due to drought, said Custer State Park Resource Program Manager Gary Brundige. In the past, as many as 1,500 buffalo would take part in the roundup.
Dry weather conditions were also on the mind of the event organizers. Custer State Park Superintendent Matt Snyder said extra fire engines and teams were on hand in case a horse’s metal hoof sliding against a rock or a car used in the roundup graced against the dry vegetation and sparked a fire.
But organizers said no fires were sparked during this year’s event.
That was good news for many of the spectators who have dreamed about seeing the roundup in person for years and made travel plans months in advance.
Darla Robeck, a school nurse in Montrose, Minn., persuaded her school to change the dates of students’ hearing and eye exams so she could witness the roundup. She said the experience made her think back to what life was like when buffalo roamed free on the Great Plains.
Robeck has traveled to South Dakota many times, although she had never seen the roundup. She said she often brings exchange students to the state to see the wide open land.
“In other countries, they don’t have the open country like here,” she said.