For visitors who return year after year to the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival, things will look and feel much different this weekend.
That’s for two reasons. The first is that the event, which draws almost 14,000 spectators annually, has moved to a different day.
The roundup of the park’s buffalo is typically held on the last Monday of September, following the park’s weekend arts festival. This year, it will be before the arts festival, on Friday, Sept. 27.
“It was born of the idea of attracting even more people,” said Craig Pugsley, visitor services coordinator for the park. More people might be willing to take off Friday from work than Monday, he added, and it is more compatible with some area schools that are on four-day school weeks.
The park, which is in its 48th year of hosting the roundup, also will offer another major change this year. The north viewing area has been altered to allow for better viewing. The fence that used to line the top of the hill has been moved to the base of the hill, providing a “natural amphitheater for people to sit and watch,” Pugsley said.
The cattle guard near the hill also was moved. The changes will allow more people to watch from the north side, and to be closer to the buffalo as they rush toward the corrals. Spectators also can watch from a south viewing area.
“They’ll be standing face to face with the buffalo,” he said. “It’s exciting to be able to offer that opportunity.”
The roundup helps manage the herd size each year, making it compatible with the rangeland available for the herd. About 60 riders on horseback coordinate with staff in vehicles to guide the animals to the park’s corrals, where they are sorted, branded and vaccinated. A buffalo auction is held each November, when about 200 to 225 animals will be sold.
About 1,250 buffalo are expected to make their way into the corrals this year. The target for the herd each year, when conditions are perfect, is 1,450. The park, however, sells more during drought years.
Pugsley said the park has gone out of its way to spread the word about the changes, including doing more advertising than usual and calling people who had camping reservations that weekend to make sure they are aware of the change.
“The camping reservations are running very strong from Wednesday through the weekend,” he said, adding that those they called did not have to make any changes.
The arts festival this year will offer a variety of entertainment, including the second annual Dutch oven cookoff and the 24th annual Buffalo Wallow Chili Cookoff. For the first time, Dutch oven cookers will offer samples at the corrals on Saturday.
“It's a taste of what's to come the next day at the cookoff,” Pugsley said.
The arts festival has helped fill the campgrounds each year, he added.
Before the arts festival started more than 20 years ago, between 20 and 50 percent of the sites would be filled; some of them even closed. The sites are all open now and almost always full during that weekend, Pugsley said.
“The visitor center always had a vision of expanding the shoulder season and the roundup has accomplished that,” he said.
Custer Chamber of Commerce event manager Miranda Boggs said she hopes the changes will draw more, not fewer people to the weekend’s events.
“We’re not sure what to anticipate,” she said. “It fills the hotels and people go downtown and shop and eat and it brings revenue to the community.”