Frigid temperatures did not slow determined workers at Custer State Park last week, as they worked to rebuild fire-damaged fences to contain the park’s iconic buffalo.
The Legion Lake Fire ignited on Dec. 11 and burned 16 miles of fencing throughout Custer State Park. On Dec. 14, before the fire was out, crews began repairing some fencing. Fences deter the resident buffalo from roaming onto neighboring private and Forest Service property.
“It’s a pretty significant amount. Building fencing in the Black Hills is not the easiest. We’ve got lots of rocks. We’re having to deal with the topography,” said Mark Hendrix, resource program manager for Custer State Park.
Winter weather has added frozen ground, snow and slick areas to the existing challenges. “It’s hard to get around,” Hendrix said.
Crews initially repaired some fences inside the park, which enabled Custer State Park to hold the buffalo that spend the winter there. Hendrix estimates about 860 buffalo are now in the park.
“We had to get one area to keep them inside so we could feed them. We temporarily repaired one internal pasture and now we’re doing boundary (repairs). Then we’ll start working on fences we need for the Buffalo Roundup this fall,” Hendrix said. “Until we have the boundary fence up, we won’t release the buffalo back out to the park.”
Crews are removing burned wooden posts, and replacing them with 10-foot galvanized metal posts driven 3 feet into the ground. Depending on the topography, some posts will be reinforced with cement for added stability. Panels of woven wire are attached to the posts. “People use (this kind of fencing) for cattle. It works for the bison as well,” Hendrix said. “We’re not buying material specific for wildlife.”
Replacing existing wooden fence posts with metal ones was already part of the park’s long-range plan to minimize potential fire damage in the future, said Bailey Terry, range ecologist for Custer State Park.
Custer State Park staff and Game, Fish & Parks employees from across the state and Will Ferguson of Ferguson Construction have been tasked with the fence project.
On Thursday — a sunny, almost windless day with icy blue skies — crews bundled in layers of shirts and sweatshirts under heavy coveralls were replacing a four-mile stretch of fencing on the east side of the park, which borders private land. Terry was part of that day’s repair crew. Even on the coldest days, with numb faces and fingers, crews are putting in full days making sure fences are back in place, she said.
“Last week, we’ve had a crew of 10 within the department of Game, Fish & Parks working on the fence. It depends on who’s available each week,” Hendrix said. “We also have (Will Ferguson of Ferguson Construction) that’s helped us build other fences. We still had time and money on a contract with him so we use him, too. ... The more people working on it, the quicker we can get it done.”
Hendrix estimates fully repairing and rebuilding the park’s fences will take about two years, but he did not estimate the total cost.
“We’re not going to get it all fixed in one year. We’ll get the boundary, but it’s going to take awhile to get to some of those interior fences,” Hendrix said. “We just don’t have enough money to get everything we need or hire everybody to just do it all.”