Cowboys like Jim Jandreau are some of the toughest around but only once a year does he interact with the wildest stock in the country.
Jandreau has been riding in the annual Custer State Park roundup for seven years and serves as a team leader to help train first-time riders for the group of 60 horsemen.
"It's the excitement, fun, dust and group of real cowboys that brings me back," said Jandreau, whose day job is park ranger at Bear Butte State Park. "There's something special about trusting your horse while you're chasing an animal that can attack at any time."
Jandreau and the team of riders, along with about a dozen vehicles, helped corral 1,200 buffalo into a pen for the annual inspection and sale. More than 15,000 spectators packed hillsides in the park to view the event that began shortly before 10 a.m.
"The horses all feed on nerves and the anticipation," Jandreau said. "Even the gentlest horses smell that buffalo and hear the pop of the whip and can have trouble holding together."
The rocky pasture was the backdrop for the cascade of bison as they rumbled toward the gates in a uniquely buffalo-style gallop.
Monday's crowd cheered as the massive group eventually funneled through two small gates into a holding pasture. Six stubborn bison provided an encore to the show after slipping past several horsemen and breaking for open ground. They were swiftly controlled and joined the rest of the crowd.
Richard Miller, superintendent at the park, called it another successful year.
"We got all the animals where they needed to be, when they needed to be there," he said. "We were also happy to have no injuries to man or beast."
Straying slightly from the event's script, three small grass fires were sparked by a pickup that was part of the roundup. Crews quickly extinguished the grass before the fires could spread.
As with last year's roundup, unseasonably warm temperatures in the 70s and 80s were good for the crowds, but bad for the animals.
"It's too hot," said Chad Kramer, herd manager at the park. "25 degrees cooler would have been nice. They get too hot and after the first mile and half were slowing down, which added some work to keep them moving."
Kramer said the heat is part of the reason they collect about 100 of the park's bison a week in advance in the pens. That way the crowd can see the vaccination and inspection process, while the 1,200 others can cool down from the run.
Monday's roundup was a park management tool and will end in an auction in coming weeks.
Last year's prices were 2-½ times higher than 2009 and generated $325,000, according to Miller. Kramer said prices nationwide have continued an upswing and park officials are hopeful that they will again see record highs.
Californians Lori and Doug Hunt brought their 6-year-old daughter to the roundup for the first time Monday. They said they made the event a priority to kick off their vacation.
"It's impressive," Doug Hunt said. "There's still the idea of grandeur and the Wild West. It's great to see all the cowboys and cowgirls out in the pasture."
Tom and Laurie Haller were similarly impressed with the spectacle despite the 2-½ hour wait to enter the park after driving from Hill City while on vacation from Minnesota.
"It was wonderful," Laurie said. "We'd love to see more horses and fewer trucks, but it's a safe event and that's how it has to be."
Contact Nick Penzenstadler at 394-8415 or email@example.com.