Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Hi Ho Buffalo!

The annual Buffalo Roundup is the end-of-season finale at Custer State Park. Thousands of people line up well before daylight so they can get a good viewing spot to watch the action. After being directed to parking places, they set up lawn chairs and spend the next several hours visiting, drinking scalding coffee and watching for buffalo.

We loaded the dogs at 5:30 a.m. and were on our way to the south viewing area. Since the gates didn't open until 6:15, the line of cars waiting to get in was four to five miles long. Parked on the road, we watched a lovely sunrise, and about 6:45 the line began to move.

Before long we were settled in the viewing area. There was a small band of buffalo across the valley, and we knew more would be coming soon. Some of the first wildlife we saw were these two puzzled sharptail grouse on the brow of the hill several hundred yards away. They must have wondered what all the fuss was about.

Shortly after, some of the park's wild donkeys meandered across the valley. We hoped that they would get out of the way before the buffalo drive started, and fortunately they did.

The roundup got off to a slow start this year. Usually the herd is assembled on the far side of the hill, then moved at a gallop over the hill and through the valley. This year, most of the gathering took place in full sight of the south viewing area. It was interesting, but definitely lacked the drama of the 2010 Roundup. Much of the work was done by cowboys and cowgirls on horseback, but a fair number of pickup trucks helped as well.

In addition, there were a number of vehicles filled, I was told, by dignitaries who wanted to be close to the action. There were also a number of riders who brought up the rear, but apparently didn't have the knowledge or expertise to ride close to the herd. It was a colorful sight, however.

However, the buffalo (technically bison) were finally assembled and driven through the valley and into the waiting pens. Most of the animals we saw were cows and calves, with a few younger bulls mixed in. We were told that the 7-10 year-old bulls (the "herd bulls") are not rounded up because they are too big and powerful, and too dangerous to handle.

Several days later we saw some of the older bulls hanging out in the park. Note the brand on this one's hip to see what year he was born.

After lunch, Park staff and volunteers began to "work" the buffalo. This means separating the cows and older calves, vaccinating, ear-tagging and branding the youngsters and deciding which will be kept in the herd and which will be sold. The cows were palpated to determine which were pregnant and which were not. It appeared that most of the ones that will have calves in the spring were kept and older cows or those found to be "open," were marked for sale. 

This cow looks a little concerned, but she was soon determined to be healthy and pregnant, and was quickly released back into the herd.

It was an interesting operation. Spectators had access to catwalks above the pens so they could observe the operation. The sorting and working of the buffalo will continue through the week, and animals selected for sale will be auctioned off at a later date. 

We were told that the CSP bison herd numbers around 1300 animals, depending on range conditions. Each fall, animals are sold to bring the number down to 900-1000 animals to avoid over-grazing the range. Then in the spring, calves are born and and the number of animals increases until the fall when the whole process repeats.


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