Get Along, Little Buffalo!

boggs-unleashed_south-dakota_buffalo-roundup_custer-state-park“Just don’t do anything stupid.”

That’s either the safety lesson or motivational speech driver Bert Winchester has just given three other journalists and me before we pile into the back of a pickup and prepare to join an armada of trucks, SUVs, the South Dakota governor, 57 riders on horseback and thousands of spectators from across the world.

Oh, and more than 1,000 bison.

Make that buffalo. After all, this is the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup in the scenic Black Hills. It combines tourism with history, nature and art (yep, an arts and crafts festival is held next to the park’s State Game Lodge) with range management. This year’s 46th annual roundup will be held on September 26; the arts festival runs September 24-26.

Don’t do anything stupid? Not me. I’m hanging on for dear life, bouncing this way and that, trying to take pictures and notes, and doing my best not to get bucked out of this truck. Stupid? I’m not the one driving over that ledge.

Stupid? You mean like those volunteer horseback riders, 20 of whom are drawn  from an average of 100 public applicants. “Some people are real good help,” bison herd manager Chad Kremer says, “and others don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into.”

Kremer knows. So does Buddy, his horse. “He’s been gored twice—once when I was riding him.”

I notice that the horseback riders are divided into teams, color-coded by armbands they wear. Probably makes the identification of trampled corpses easier.

Kremer calls the roundup “hard and furious riding over tough terrain.”

Likely, he’s referring to Bert Winchester’s driving. Watch that limb, Bert! Don’t run over that boulder! Look out for that prairie dog town! We’re close enough to those stampeding buffalo, thank you kindly.

Think Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves meets Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, and you’ll understand just how hard and furious this event really is.

Suddenly we stop. I check my ribs. Well, I will, as soon as I can pry my fingers from the roll-bar.

This event’s over!

No. “We’re just giving them a breather,” Bert says. Bison, he means, not journalists.

“It’s a big deal to do this,” says Phill Randall, who will carry the state flag in when the herd heads down to the corrals.

This is a big deal, even if you’re a tourist watching from the safety of the hills above. Thundering buffalo lope across one of the West’s most gorgeous state parks on a perfect autumn morning. It’s life imitating 1962’s How the West was Won.

Hang on. Bert’s at it again. Don’t do anything stupid? Not Bert. He knows better than to drive down this hill. We cruise into the pen area at a reasonable speed. Hey, neither cameras nor ribs are broken. Bert Winchester should run for governor.

The herd is in the corrals. Of the park’s 1,180 buffalo (the herd’s number varies depending on range conditions), we’ve gathered about 1,050. The pen area now begins filling up with thousands of tourists and the aroma of barbecued buffalo.

I’ve survived with just a few bruises. I’m disappointed. Less than an hour, and it’s over. Oh, it’s not over, Kremer assures me: “’Cause I’ve got about two weeks of hard work left.” After the herd is rounded up, the work—sorting, branding, vaccinating before between 200 and 500 head will be auctioned off in November—really begins.

“For me, it’s part of my job,” Kremer says. “It’s a big event and we plan for it all year long.”

Can I come back next year? I’ll even ride in the back of Bert Winchester’s pickup.

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