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Some of the grass burnt by the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park in January. 

This winter has seen a rash of wildfires at local state parks, with Custer State Park and Bear Butte State Park both experiencing blazes over the last two months.

One thing that has not been a result of these fires are casualties to both park's bison herds.

Despite roaring flames that started at Legion Lake and burned through 54,023 acres, there were no casualties within the 850-head bison herd reported directly in the flames, although CSP herd manager Chad Kremer did say that one cow was put down the day after because of smoke damage to its eyes that left it nearly blind.

"We had quite a few with the smoke and heat affecting their eyes, they weren’t completely blind, couldn’t see definition, just light and dark," he said.

Just because no bison perished in the fire doesn't mean there wasn't damage to the herd. Kremer said bison suffered everything from the outer, thicker coat being burned off to burns in areas on the backside and underbelly, burns to the eyelids, muzzle and lips.

He estimated that there are 5-10 bison in the herd who he and a veterinarian are waiting on to see if they need to be euthanized because of their injuries.

Still, a large portion of the herd escaped with no injuries. Kremer said he didn't have a great explanation for why this was, but said he has a few theories that involve the power of a herd and a town of prairie dogs.

Kremer said in speaking with firefighters Dec. 11, they said the herd was moving southeast, still northeast of the corrals, and directly east of the wildlife visitor center.

"His comment was that it was like a mass exodus, they were all in one line heading out in that direction," he said.

"There is a prairie dog town way on the east boundary that is fairly good size but they found them the next morning they were just north of that about a mile."

Getting to a prairie dog town is important, according to Kremer, because the terrain has shorter grass or no grass, meaning the fire has less fuel to burn with.

Getting to that prairie dog town through the blaze would be no easy task, and although Kremer said he didn’t see how the herd moved, he had one theory as to how the herd could have gotten to safety.

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“I don’t know if area-wise they were able to get through where maybe the flames weren’t quite as high and into the prairie dog town,” he said. “A thought I had was possibly if there’s a wall of flame coming at them and they stayed together as a herd and ran through it, just them running through it would be enough to knock the wall down some and then you would have an opening. It would take off once the fuel wasn’t being disturbed, but I don’t know, I’m trying to figure out how they got by, got around and we didn’t have any more affected. It would be interesting to see how they reacted.”

Kremer has a personal herd adjacent to the park that wasn’t so lucky. He said that because of the lasting impact of the blaze, he had lost seven bison, or 50 percent of his herd.

He also said that between six and 10 additional bison may have to be put down because of lasting injuries from the fire. He said the decision on those bison should come within the next couple of weeks.

The Bear Butte State Park herd of nine bison was spared from the recent fire that burned 150 acres of the north side of the park over the weekend.

Park manager Jim Jandreau said the grazing pasture for the small herd is on the south side of the butte, and the winds blew out of the west so the herd was never in the direct line of fire.

Contact Geoff Preston at geoffrey.preston@rapidcityjournal.com

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.