The mounts are saddled, snorting steam, and whinnying with anticipation. There’s a zip in the early-morning air, and not just from the cool fall weather. The chink-chink-chink of cowboy spurs rings out as 60 riders sip coffee and cinch their saddles tighter in this remote corner of Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. On the far side of the stony plains and sage-carpeted ridges are some 1,300 American bison (also called American buffalo), grazing on prairie grass and sedges, unaware of the role they are about to play in this day’s drama.
Chad Kremer, the park’s muttonchopped and mustachioed head wrangler, calls the riders to pay attention. “It’s gonna be a good day,” he says with a drawl. He points out the locations of the various bison groups on a topographical map. “Blue team, you’re gonna be on the Flats. We’ll need somebody to ride the edge. There’s a big mature bull just over the hill there, so keep an eye out, but he can just stay where he’s at.” He pauses to survey the eager drovers. “Welp, let’s go.”
In 30 minutes, the riders are fanned out near the unsuspecting bison. As if on cue, two cowboys snap their bullwhips to startle the buffalo. “Hyeaah!” shouts the leader and begins to ride. Another cowboy whistles, then cries, “Whoop, whoop, whoop!” A distant rider calls out, “Hey now, git on over there! Hey-hey-hey!” The horsebackers converge on the herd, and the buffalo move in the opposite direction — slowly at first, then faster. As the bison pick up speed, the horses embrace the pursuit. The dust and shouts and clattering of hooves are tremendous as man and beast ride hard in an ever-shifting shape of chaser and chased.
Then comes a shout no one ever wants to hear in such a situation: “Rider down! Rider down! Rider down!”
The American bison — that shaggy, horned icon of the West — once roamed the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico in the millions. Yet by the end of the 19th century, they were nearly extinct, victims of a ruthless slaughter in the name of sport and to deprive the indigenous people of the Plains of their most important source of food, shelter, and clothing.
But somehow, a handful survived.
In 1914, Custer State Park bought 36 of them. Two years later, there were 50 buffalo in the park, sharing the rolling grasslands with pronghorns, prairie dogs, mountain goats, coyotes, elk, and bighorn sheep. Today, the local bison population hovers between 1,300 and 1,500 animals. Elsewhere across the country are some 30,000 more wild bison in similar conservation herds and 500,000 on private lands — an uplifting environmental success story.
The buffalo roundup is the highlight of the state park’s annual calendar. The event attracts 20,000 onlookers, who position themselves on hillsides within a few hundred yards of where the bellowing beasts will be driven.
But why bother rounding up the buffalo at all? Why not just let them roam?
“That would be pretty disastrous,” says Mark Hendrix, the state park’s resource program manager. “There’s not any large predators anymore. So really there’s nothing aside from old age. I would hate to see what it would look like if they just ate themselves out of house and home and starved and died off. That would be pretty sad. If we let the bison overgraze, then we’re not doing our part being stewards of the land for future generations.”
Once the bison are corralled, they’ll be checked for disease, the calves branded, and the young males tested for fertility. “We’ll also vaccinate and worm ’em, then determine which ones we’re gonna sell,” says Hendrix. “We’ll probably have about 250 surplus animals. The remainder of ’em’ll go back out into the park.”
A unique aspect of the roundup is a lottery among would-be volunteers. Twenty winners, so-called “draw riders,” get to mount up next to 40 professionals. Kremer, who looks as if he just walked off the set of a Clint Eastwood Western, is understandably concerned for their safety.
“I’ve had a few riders realize after our safety briefing and orientation ride that it probably isn’t in their best interest to ride right now, and so they’ve had to bow out,” he says. “And that’s what I want. I don’t want anybody to get hurt. That’s our biggest concern, to get the event done safely.”
Which recalls the recent shouts of “Rider down!” When asked about it later, Kremer says, “A gal got thrown when her horse ran off with her, but from what I’ve heard, she’s gonna be okay.”
Meantime, as a four-wheel-drive EMT vehicle rushes to the rescue, the roundup carries on. At one point, a handful of bison breaks off from the pack, and a lone rider rushes furiously up a slope to cut them off, waving his hat while holding the reins with one hand, driving the animals back to join the others. At great risk to themselves and their horses, the drovers chase the buffalo across a dangerous prairie dog town, where a single misstep could lead to a horse breaking a leg. Down a narrow defile called Movie Draw they gallop, forcing the herd into an area called The Traps, and onward toward the corrals.
As the herd races down the ravine, close enough to the viewing areas that the onlookers have to squint to keep the raging dust out of their eyes, there erupt spontaneous cheers and applause so loud and sustained that even the cowboys can hear them among the din of the thundering bison. These visitors — whether from a sense of homage, or nostalgia, or love of history and the American saga — have come to see a sight that almost didn’t exist. And they get everything they bargained for: shouting cowpunchers, neighing quarter horses and Appaloosas and Arabians, angry bulls and wide-eyed yearlings, and a glorious blue-sky morning on the wide open grasslands of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Held on the last Friday of September, the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, which is free to the public, will celebrate its 53rd year in 2018.
Mark Orwoll is former international editor of Travel + Leisure.
This article is featured in the January/February 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.