Buffalo rumble across S.D. park

More than 1,000 buffalo thunder across the prairie land last month during the 47th annual Buffalo Roundup in western South Dakota's Custer State Park. (AP Photo/Kristi Eaton)

CUSTER, S.D. — Two-year-old Jameson Maxwell sat mesmerized as nearly 1,000 bison rumbled across the prairie in western South Dakota, the massive creatures racing at speeds of up to 50 mph in the annual Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park.

“He really enjoys it. ... He thinks he’s going to catch one,” his mother, Maria Maxwell, said as she watched the toddler perfect his roping skills after the event.

Maxwell and her son were among thousands of people from all over the world who descended on South Dakota late last month for a taste of the Old West and a chance to see one of the most iconic American creatures.

Officials created the Buffalo Roundup nearly 50 years ago to manage the bison herd at Custer State Park. It has since become a multiday event that draws people from as far away as Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

The event usually includes other activities such as an arts festival and cook-offs, and many visitors also make trips to Mount Rushmore, several area national parks and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Next year’s event is expected to be held Sept. 27. Visit www.gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer.

Tens of millions of bison, also known as buffalo, once roamed most of North America before overhunting reduced the population to about 1,000 animals by the turn of the 20th century.

Subsequent conservation efforts helped rebuild the herds, though not anything close to the numbers they were at when they roamed free across the Great Plains.

Visitors to the 47th annual Buffalo Roundup rose before dawn and packed Custer State Park to watch the bison being corralled into pens.

About 225 to 250 of the animals will be sold and shipped across North America, said Chad Kremer, the herd manager at Custer State Park. The buffalo will supplement existing herds, help start new ones or be used for meat.

Many spectators sat for hours at two designated viewing areas in 40-degree temperatures. Soon, nearly 1,000 of the mighty animals began barreling across the landscape, down the hill, around a bend and into a waiting pen.

“It’s something you can only get in South Dakota,” said 42-year-old Ken Asbridge, who traveled from North Carolina for the event. “It’s part of America’s past. The buffalo went away and now it’s coming back.”

The goal of the South Dakota event is to keep the head in Custer State Park at about 1,000 bison, Kremer said.

Fewer bison were being corralled this year than in the past because the park’s herd count has been down due to drought, said Custer State Park Resource Program Manager Gary Brundige. In the past, as many as 1,500 buffalo would take part in the roundup.

Many spectators who have dreamed about seeing the roundup in person for years made travel plans months in advance.