CUSTER STATE PARK | Almost in defiance of rain and early wet snow falling on Friday, Custer State Park’s buffalo herd still managed to put on their annual show, even kicking up obligatory clouds of dust to go with the rumble of hooves during the park’s 53rd buffalo roundup.
Morning temperatures near freezing and intermittent sprinkles of rain may have kept spectator numbers down, but the thousands who still gathered on hillsides north and south of the park’s buffalo corrals simply bundled up and endured the chill.
“Things went really well, despite how we turned out this morning, when you wake up, it’s snowing and the ground’s turning white,” said park superintendent Matt Snyder, of the annual roundup involving most of the park’s 1,300 buffalo.
Park officials were still tabulating reports on attendance, which exceeded 21,000 during the 50th roundup in 2015. The threat of inclement weather figured to blunt the crowds a bit.
“We expected that, but we still had good numbers of people here enjoying the day,” Snyder said.
Most of the snow had melted away by the time the first bison topped a ridge south of the corrals just before 10 a.m.
A few stragglers, including some cantankerous animals insisting on wandering away from the herd, kept wranglers busy.
A slowly advancing line of mounted riders and pickups finally made the final push to get the herd into corrals about 10:45 a.m.
The cool conditions actually lessened the stress on the herd that comes with the roundup.
Once safely in the corrals, buffalo will be sorted and checked for overall health. Cows will be pregnancy tested and calves will be vaccinated and branded.
“They don’t get as winded and overheated as you get when it’s warmer,” Snyder said. “There’s a little more energy and a little more spunk with them.”
Wrangler Melissa Kelson of Hermosa, a park seasonal employee, rode the roundup on horseback for the third year, and confirmed first-hand the higher energy level of the animals.
“Those bison had a mind of their own. They didn’t want to go where we wanted to go,” she said
The roundup also gives park herd managers and veterinarians another chance for a follow-up check on bison that went through last December’s wildfire, which scorched 54,000 acres in Custer State Park, neighboring Wind Cave National Park and on private land.
“Some may still have some eye issues, but we’re thinking everything’s OK,” Snyder said.
One rider went down during the roundup, but was able to remount quickly, Snyder said. No injuries were reported among the 55 wranglers that worked the herd on horseback, in pickups and utility vehicles, an experience Kelson calls “an adrenaline rush.”
“You can’t beat it, the sound of the bison running across the prairie with the wind in your hair,” Kelson said. “It’s just an amazing experience.”