A park ranger and a half dozen tourists gathered around a bison lying dead at the side of a road in Wind Cave National Park Sunday morning. Bloodstains marked where a vehicle had hit the animal the night before.

The group moved when a giant bison walked over to his fallen brother, sniffing and licking him before moving away.

A local woman driving a sedan north on U.S. 385 hit the bison at 9:48 p.m. Saturday, said park spokesman Tom Farrell. It was the sixth vehicle-on-bison crash and third fatal one at the park this year — a significant increase from previous years.

No bison were hit last year, Farrell said. Two bison were hit in 2017, but they didn't die, while two bison died from crashes in 2016.

Farrell said he's not sure what's behind the increase this year but said drivers need to stay under the speed limit and look out for the animals, especially at night. Bison can often weigh as much as a ton.

"It's almost like looking at a black hole, they're very hard to see" at night, he said.

Kobee Stalder, visitor services manager at Custer State Park, just north of Wind Cave, agreed that bison are "very difficult" to see in the dark due to their dark-brown fur and the location of their eyes in the middle of their head. The eyes usually don't reflect until a car is close.

"By the time your lights connect with the eyes to make them shine, it's too late," he said.

Bison may stand in the middle of the road day or night and don't tend to jump out of the way like other wildlife do, Stalder added.

Winter is the most dangerous time to drive at Wind Cave, because it gets dark earlier. The park's 500 bison are often on the road then, because they like to eat the salt vehicles bring into the park, Farrell said.

"It makes for a dangerous combination," he said.

Both Stalder and Farrell agreed that speeding is a major cause of bison crashes.

"It usually happens due to driver negligence, travelling faster than the 35-mph speed limit in the park," Stalder said.

None of Custer State Park's 1,350 bison have been hit this year, but two were hit in 2018, one was hit in 2017, and one was hit in 2016. One died soon after the crash, while the other three had to be euthanized due to injuries, Stalder said.

Wind Cave may have more incidents than Custer State Park because U.S. 385 serves as a commuter route between Custer and Hot Springs, Farrell said.

He said the woman who hit the bison Saturday night had no visible injuries, but her car was totaled and had to be towed. The dead bison was covered with a white tarp or blanket and surrounded by bright tape Sunday morning, and it was later moved to a remote area to decompose.

Bison in Custer State Park also are usually left to decay naturally rather than being removed for processing, Stalder said. The park must take the animal to be processed within an hour after it dies, but they are often discovered several hours later. Plus, the processing plant may be closed, and meat harvested from bison killed under stress doesn't taste good.

Stalder said South Dakota law says drivers must report accidents that cause more than $1,000 in damage, which is usually the case in vehicle-on-bison crashes, since bison are worth thousands of dollars and cars are usually totaled. If the crash is shown to be caused due to negligence, the driver’s insurance company must cover the value of the bison, which ranges from $8,000 to $10,000.

Farrell said state and federal laws require people to report crashes that cause property damage, but they aren't required to pay for the value of the bison at Wind Cave. He said people can be fined for not reporting an accident.

The spokeswoman for Badlands National Park did not respond to messages from the Journal asking how many bison have been hit there in recent years.

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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