Wet snow, temps in the 30s and lots and lots of mud mixed with … “bison-based fertilizer” didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the thousands of people from all over the country who turned out for the 53rd annual Custer State Park Buffalo roundup on Friday.
Up to four inches of snow had fallen in the higher elevations of the park the night before, making for a scenic drive out to the corral area on Wildlife Loop Road. And while park workers had prepared snow plows in preparation for the snow, they weren’t needed, as the roads were merely wet.
Heading east from Custer, the snow became less and less until the only snow that could be seen from the roundup viewing areas was on the tops of the surrounding hills.
While no snow remained on the ridge of the south viewing area, there was plenty of mud. The driveways into the grassy parking areas became a mire of gumbo and the soles of shoes and boots quickly grew to twice their size as spectators made their way to the tops of the ridge to get the best view.
Likewise, the areas surrounding the tent where breakfast was being served and roundup merchandise was being sold started to look like pictures of the muddy gold camps of a century and a half ago. Early morning hunger pangs apparently overcame the mud, however, as the line to the pancakes, sausage and coffee stretched at least 60 feet.
But even with all those obstacles, spirits were high among the crowd that had traveled many miles to witness the annual spectacle.
Three members of one Iowa family were all wearing warm buffalo hats they had purchased in previous visits to the park and enthusiastically talked about why they come back. The youngest member of the group, Ruby O’Hagan, was back for her second visit to the roundup, but has no memory of it since she was only 2 years old at the time. She did have plenty to say about this trip, however.
“I just think it’s fantastic,” she enthused. “I love looking around at all the scenery. The snow is so beautiful today and all the people are so friendly.”
That feeling of camaraderie was present with all the attendees we talked to on Friday. Visitors from Texas, Missouri, Wisconsin and a number of other states all pointed to the feeling of fellowship as being one of the highlights of the event.
Crowd excitement grew a little after 10 a.m. when the first few buffalo started to appear on top of the ridge to the south. Then horseback riders, four-wheelers and pickups started to appear as the hairy beasts headed north toward the corrals. It wasn’t long before the cracking of bullwhips employed by several riders could be heard.
About 40 minutes after the first buffalo appeared, it was all over. When the first group of bison headed across the road into the corrals, the crowd on the north side sent up a cheer that could be heard a half mile away on the other side of the valley. Then someone on the south side yelled out, “Let’s let ‘em hear us, south side!” and the southerners roared as well.
Kobee Stalder, visitor program services coordinator for the park, said attendance was at 15,750 this year, which is down from the 20,000-plus who turned out for previous roundups.
“It’s obvious the weather played a factor in the attendance this year,” said Stalder, “but considering that some of the surrounding communities of the park had over four inches of snow, for that many people to show up for the event is a big success in our eyes.”
Stalder said the only safety issue this year was the fact that two drones were illegally flying over the event.
“Our law enforcement did a great job of finding the people flying them and getting them out of the sky,” he said, noting the sound of the drones affects the bison herd and could have potentially scared some of the riders’ horses.