America Travelling Guide

South Dakota, one of the USA’s Great Plains states, holds an annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park. Last week was the 51st event and we were lucky enough to be in the area. Here’s the lowdown…

WHAT IS A BUFFALO ROUNDUP, EXACTLY?

First, the roundup is a practical business – it’s undertaken by people on horses (wranglers) to assess the size and health of the herd – but it’s also one of the best days out you can have on the Great Plains.

The vibe is about as South Dakota as it gets, all state pride and local flavour: Miss South Dakota beaming for pictures from atop her horse; long lines for buns stuffed with pulled buffalo (optional baked beans and nachos on the side); the smell of horses and manure spiking the air; and wranglers in chaps strutting about, bow-legged from a lifetime in the saddle.

WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF THE ROUNDUP?

The roundup is also a deep insight into the country’s past. The story of these enormous beasts is one of America’s most epic. They roamed the Plains in their tens of millions before the arrival of European settlers and Native American life revolved around them.

Through the 1800s, the bison were shot for their hides and meat; for sport (including ‘hunts’ involving potshots from the comfort of trains); to make space for cattle and farming; and, shamefully, to deny Native Americans their main food source. Come the end of the century, bison numbers had dwindled to just 700 or so.

So while it was an unforgettable occasion, full of the kind of ‘authentic’ experience every tourist craves, I watched the majestic running of the animals with sadness too. The thunder of their hooves could once rival that of the vast skies above.

WAIT, BISON? WHERE ARE THE BUFFALO?

It isn’t actually a buffalo roundup. It’s a bison roundup. The settlers misnamed them because of their likeness to the buffalo that roam Asia and Africa, and the tag stuck. But they’re bison.

And, in case you’re wondering, bison are also very different to cattle. The far more docile cattle were introduced by Europeans, and need a lot of care. Bison are indigenous and uncooperative, so for the rest of the year, the herd are left mostly to their own devices – they know how to take care of themselves.

Most bison herds in the USA – including the roundup’s – now have a bit of cattle in them. For ‘pure’ bison you have to go down the road to neighbouring Wind Cave National Park. The herd there has never been interbred (though only scientists can discern any difference).

WHO DOES THE ROUNDING UP?

Well, there’s octogenarian Bob Lantis, who has worked every roundup for the past 45 years – and swears he’ll be there next year too. Plus, there’s Miss South Dakota, who isn’t just there to look pretty either.

The rest of the wranglers are either park rangers or volunteers. The latter are screened to make sure they’re good enough at riding – but then lots of people in South Dakota are good at riding horses, rodeo is the official state sport, after all.

SO AS A MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC, WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY EXPERIENCE OF THE ROUNDUP ITSELF?

The bison have already been preliminarily gathered together – loosely – before the big day, then the roundup itself takes place over a distance of about a mile, through various fields, with crowds gathered on low hills around its course.

Since you watch from a slight remove, the whip-cracks and whoops of the wranglers and the pummelling of the bison’s hooves carry to you on the wind rather than assault your senses.

But then you come to the roundup – which is free – as much for the atmosphere as for the herding itself, which takes about half an hour. And for a state with just 800,000 people, it’s a hell of an atmosphere. The figures aren’t in for this year but 2015, the fiftieth anniversary, saw 25,000 guests.

In any case, you really don’t want to get too close. This year there was one calf that had been born later than the other young, just three weeks before the roundup. During the action one of the wranglers got too close to it and its mother chased the horse away. It did make me wonder, with a little thrill, if the American bison has ever truly been conquered.