Annual Custer State Park Bison Roundup

Custer State Park Bison Roundup Helped by Good Weather, Dozens of Cowboys, Cowgirls and Horses

Elaine Shein
By  Elaine Shein , DTN/Progressive Farmer Associate Content Manager
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The annual Custer State Park bison roundup helps ensure the health of one of the largest publicly owned herds in the U.S and draws thousands of visitors from across the U.S. and even internationally to watch the event. (DTN file photo by Gregg Hillyer)

OMAHA (DTN) -- As 1,540 bison swept across the grassy hills of Custer State Park in South Dakota on Sept. 29, with hooves thundering and kicking up dust, 50-60 riders on horses helped to move them along with yells, yips and whips cracking the air. Horses neighed and snorted as they galloped and did occasional quick sharp turns to collect stray bison. A few people in trucks and ATVs also rode the big hills to help the herd be moved.

From a distance, an appreciative audience watched as one of the largest publicly owned herds in the U.S. was rounded up in less than two hours, from large bulls to the smallest calves that stuck close to their mother's side. Big bull bison are not included in the roundup, for safety reasons, because they are too aggressive and difficult to move.

Admission was free for the 58th annual Custer State Park Bison Roundup: People across the country, as well as from as far away as Sweden, Germany and Norway, traveled to this scenic part of South Dakota for the only event of its kind in the country.

During the night before, people patiently waited several hours in vehicle line-ups, or even slept in their vehicles, so they could arrive early enough for when the gates opened shortly after 6 a.m. They could then get a good viewing spot on hills safely fenced off from the herd that would start being rounded up more than three hours later. They were rewarded with favorable weather, fall's golden colors and a chance to experience what people often describe as being on their "bucket list" in life.

People set up lawn chairs, brought their cameras and smartphones to get pictures, drank coffee and ate sausage and pancakes available in the viewing areas. They applauded when the cowboys and cowgirls successfully brought the last of the bison into the corrals nearest the crowd. A barbecue followed after the roundup.

While final numbers for 2023 aren't yet available, the event's average attendance has been 20,000 to 25,000 people in the past.

For those who couldn't make it in person, they could watch the event livestream on the park's Facebook page that was done by South Dakota Public Broadcasting with several cameras around the park to capture the event's sights and sounds. Viewers checked in and noted where they were from: New York, Virginia, Washington State, Missouri, Michigan, Texas ... the list went on, including even someone from Liverpool, U.K.

The livestream included educational dialogue, such as how bison differ from cattle. "They look like just this big fluffy cow, but they can run 35 miles an hour at the drop of a hat, and they can run that for 15-20 minutes, you know, they're faster than a horse. They look like a docile critter, but there's times of the year where they're breeding and rutting and stuff that they'll butt heads," Chris Hull, from South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, told SDPB Radio's Larry Rohrer during the livestream.

Hull added how resilient bison are, including they use the big hump on their backs to push snow in the winter to find grass. "A big bull will eat 50 pounds of grass in a day, so you have to have a lot of grass out here to feed 1,500 critters."

The livestream was taped; see the whole roundup and SDPB coverage of this year's event at….


Cattle producer Kevin Robling was one of the riders who took part in the roundup at the park. "What an awesome day! What a special day! ... We made some memories pushing 1,540 bison into a corral this morning. And it went very, very well," he said later in the livestreamed press conference.

Speaking in his role as department secretary of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, Robling explained one of the roundup's main goals is to ensure the animals are in the best health they can be put in. This includes for the park and herd sustainability, as well as hundreds of bison being sent to join other herds in North America.

During the press conference he shared more of what it was like to be a participant this year.

"I was actually part of the roundup on the horses and (it was) just a fun time doing that. Yeah, going across the prairie on a horse, there's no feeling -- like, no other -- so, good times for sure," Robling said.

"I grew up on a farm and ranch and ... love riding horses, so got on Moon, my horse here, and yeah, we went across the prairie with a good team of riders. We had about 50 riders today -- 50 to 60 riders -- all great riders and got those buffalo rounded up and it went very, very well. The communication was great. The coordination was great. Staff have been phenomenal. And I can't thank folks enough for coming out and enjoying the great event," he said.

The horseback riders included park staff, long-time riders, as well as up to 25 were volunteer cowboys and cowgirls selected each year through an application process. (…)


Other speakers at the press conference also talked about the importance of the bison roundup.

Matt Snyder, Custer State Park Superintendent, said the West comes alive with the roundup, but there's a more important goal.

"One of the main reasons we do (the roundup) is to help check the herd, we basically bring all the animals in and check their overall health, we vaccinate the calves, brand the calves, and then we figure out what are we going to keep over winter, and what are we going to sell at the auction coming up in November. So, there's a process to the madness that we go through," he said, and added that it's also a fun event that allows the public to see "this spectacular aspect of it."

"I mean, how many times can you get this close to a buffalo herd? And you hear the grunts and the moans and the calves coming and running alongside mamas? It's just a spectacular thing to see and experience. And why do we want to keep it to ourselves? So, that's why we made this into such a great event," Snyder said.

Robling talked more about what happens to the bison they round up. "Every year we bring them in and we Bang's (disease) vaccinate them. We actually vaccinate the replacement heifers for brucellosis to make sure the herd is very, you know, disease-free, if you will. And we'll also then look for any abnormalities, we'll preg check (the cows) and make sure they're pregnant." He said they get them ready for sale.

"We do sell about 500 animals every year," he said, and noted they have a video auction every year; the next one takes place Nov. 4 to sell a lot of the calves. The auction is held at the park's visitor center; the bison will be purchased to supplement an existing herd, start a herd or to eat, noted the South Dakota government on its website (See…. For more on past auctions at… and this year's auction at….)

"But it is all about herd health, we do vaccinate them, we do brand them, we do preg check them and make sure you know the health of that herd is in tip-top shape. And that's the objective of today, (it's) to get them down to these corrals, and we'll start working them here in just a couple of weeks so."

Snyder said when they start working with the herd, they bring in about 75-100 animals ahead of time to let them relax and calm down. They start working with those, then bring in the rest of the herd in a couple of weeks and do all the work in four or five days. He noted it goes fast during some long days, and they have a veterinarian that is with them every day.

Then they decide what to sell in the auction -- usually 200-500 bison -- and what to release into the herd for the park. He said this year they want to be at 960 animals for the park. "How we determine that is our range conditions, which is determined by our annual moisture. So how much snowfall did we get over the winter? How much rainfall did we get this spring? And then we have a range ecologist that takes a hard look at the range conditions and says, okay, we can support this many animals and keep them all healthy. And that's the overall objective," explained Snyder.

"So, every year it gets tweaked a little bit depending on how many we're going to keep or how many we sell based on the overall conditions of our of our grass."

He said they had more than 1,100 bison over last winter, then calved more than 400 this spring -- about typical for calving in the park.

One of the reasons they were able to have so many bison in the last few years was because the grassland rebounded very well after the Legion Lake Fire in December 2017 burned 84 square miles -- about 54,000 acres -- and was the third-largest wildfire in the Black Hills' recorded history.

"And we've had ample moisture. And that's really been good. And so, the range conditions have been very good, but we want to keep them good. So, we don't want to overgraze an area either. So, that's why we keep a close eye on it," Snyder said.


Robling stressed the importance of selling bison to other herds.

"The bison industry has grown over the years very much," he noted. "One of our main things here with this herd is we do sell a lot of breeding bulls to other ag producers across the nation." He said all 50 states have Custer State Park bison in them. "This herd has contributed greatly to the bison industry across North America, for that matter."

He said it comes down to ensuring the herd is in the best health and that's why they are rounded up.


Jim Hagen, South Dakota's secretary of tourism, who said he's been doing the event for more than 20 years, talked about how important the roundup is for tourism. It has become "a truly global event" drawing people from all over the world.

"As the event has grown itself in terms of popularity domestically, we started seeing the international interest in this event really start to grow about 10 years ago and that interest (in this has) grown every single year from all over ... This morning I've already met folks from Sweden, from Germany, from Norway, and we know there's from other countries as well."

Hagen explained why South Dakota has been attracting international visitors.

"We've been very aggressive over the last decade, and especially over the last, I would say, five years, and really going after those international visitors. So, we have a large presence and marketing presence and partnerships with some of our surrounding states, in Europe, in Australia, in New Zealand, the Nordic countries as well. And ... the sky's the limit in terms of international visitation.

"What we hear from them, always, when they come to South Dakota is one, we had no idea it was as beautiful as it is. Two, our people are so friendly. And we're constantly getting comments from our international guests on how friendly our folks are," Hagen said.

"But, three, people are just saying there is so much to see and do here. In our mind's eye, we may have thought, oh, there's only Mount Rushmore. But once they get here, they said, we should have stayed for two weeks, five days isn't enough, six days isn't enough. So yeah, that international interests will continue to grow. And we'll be aggressive in reaching out to those international audiences as well."

To help educate visitors, Custer State Park Bison Center opened last year near the bison corral complex to focus on the history of the herd, as well as herd management and practices. Visitors can see the bison herds year around at the state park.

For those who still hope to visit South Dakota for the better-known areas such as Mount Rushmore and other national parks, Hagen addressed concerns on how the pending federal government shutdown for Oct. 1 was going to affect them. He announced South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem reached out to the National Park Service and Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park would remain open, although they may be with limited services such as limited or closed bathrooms. Other national parks in the state would close.


Editor's Note:

To see DTN feature and video on Wyoming's Durham Ranch, one of the country's largest working bison ranches, see:…

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Elaine Shein

Elaine Shein
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