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History Of The Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park

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Lori Walsh: The 71,000 acres Custer State Park, in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, are also home to 1300 bison. The last Friday in September, those animals are brought in and the event is open to the public. It's a big part of South Dakota history. Kobee Stalder is the Visitor Services Program Manager at Custer State Park. He joins us today with just a bit of that history on this roundup, for today's Images of the Past. Kobee, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Kobee Stalder: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Lori Walsh: All right. Tell us a little bit about how far back the buffalo roundup, the annual event really goes.

Kobee Stalder: Sure. The first official roundup goes all the way back to 1965, but the park had been rounding up the bison long before that, just not as consistently, not every year as it started in 1965. We've had buffalo in the park since 1914, before we even officially became a park. We were a nature preserve and we had Buffalo on our range since 1914. The bison basically flourished in our park with the native grasses, and so they reproduced really quickly and herd managers didn't quite know how to handle that yet. So, what they did is, every few years, when the herd got too big, throughout the '20s and '30s, and even into the '40s, they would round them up. That might be every five years, every two years. It just really depended. Then at that time, there was no auctions.

What we had in Custer State Park was actually a meat packing plant. We actually took the excess Buffalo that we had and we put them into the meat trade. That's kind of a neat story. You do feel bad for the bison that were put into that meat trade market, but actually we helped supply meat for both World Wars, because there was a actually a restriction on cattle beef during World War II. At that time, bison was still considered games. So we actually supplied a lot of bison meat to our troops over in World War II. That's kind of a neat thing.

Then, throughout the '50s, bison meat became more and more popular. More people wanted it. Then, by the time the 60's rolled around, we actually, there was actually a good market for bison. That's when we became, we decided to do an actual annual roundup and then auction, where we sold off to two ranchers that wanted to get into the bison industry. It grew from there. But we've actually had official Roundup every year since October of 1965.

Lori Walsh: As we talk about that, let's talk about what happens if the herd isn't managed in the park and there were early problems with that as well, when it comes to natural grasslands and such. What do we know about the symbiotic role between just having the bison and having the herds in the park and then also managing them?

Kobee Stalder: Yeah, If we weren't to manage our herd, they would overgraze our grasslands. We only have enough natural resources in the park to supplement our bison herd, our elk herd, our deer, our pronghorn, everything. Everything needs to eat off of our grasslands. So, if we weren't to manage that, our bison herd would grow and grow and grow, and eventually it would just overgraze our grasslands to the point where nothing would be able to, to live naturally off of our land. That's a major reason why we do the roundup and auction. It's an overall health check too. It's a critical management tool. We bring them all in. We pregnancy test the cows. We give them an overall health inspection. We brand our calves. We give them inoculations and to make sure that the herd is healthy. But if we weren't to do that, they would just continue to reproduce and reproduce and then they would just overgraze our lands.

Eventually we wouldn't have, and then eventually they'd just naturally die off of starvation. The fact that we do actively manage it, it's beneficial, both for our range lands and all our wildlife in the park. That is one of the main reasons why we do have the annual roundup and auction every year, is to take that because ... Oh, in the winter time, with the amount of range lands we have, and with all of our other animal populations, we can overwinter, anywhere between 1000 and 1100 bison. That's about the max our range lands can carry over the winter time. In the summer it's a little different. Obviously, grass is growing and everything like that. Our herd this year is about 1450 with the new calve crop that we have this year. I mean, that's one of the major reasons why we do the roundup itself, is to maintain healthy prairie lands, as well as healthy wildlife herds in the park for our visitors

Lori Walsh: I want to talk, for Images of the Past, of what this roundup means for South Dakota, for the park, nationwide, because as I look at the, there's a post up at Look for Images of the Past there. You can see some video of Governor Mickelson riding in the roundup, footage from the 1930s of the roundup. It's not only a range management or an annual ritual, but it comes to stand for something broader about the West and about South Dakota and about the bison, almost hunted to extinction early on in, in the days. What do you see as you're doing the scientific tasks that need to be done, the conservation tasks that need to be done, you're also aware of what this roundup means for South Dakota history. Talk a little bit about that Kobee.

Kobee Stalder: Yeah. I think the roundup is, was one of the most unique events in, in the United States. I mean, there's only two places you can go to see an event like this. Another one would be antelope Island in Utah where they also do a roundup every year for their public herd. Yeah, I mean, it really embodies what South Dakota is about, which is wildlife conservation through management. Yeah, you're almost transported back into the Old West when you see this event. I mean, when you see 1400 Buffalo coming up over a hill right at you, I mean, you've never seen anything like that in your life, and it really ,takes you back and gives you glimpses of what it was like before that when there was 30 to 60 million bison roaming, the prairies of North America. Yeah, and it's a very long-standing tradition in South Dakota where, since 1965, it's really grown, from the original roundups where there used to be maybe 100 to 200 people attending.

Now, back in the previous years and even the last year, you have 19,000 people that attended the event. It's really grown to be not only a critical management tool, but really a huge tourism event that allows people from not only the United States, but the world to come and see what South Dakota is all about. Yeah, you mentioned Governor Mickelson riding in the roundup, You had Governor Janklow, you have governor Noem, all these governors that have come out to display and showcase their state with this event. I mean, it's been great. Yeah, I mean, I think it, for South Dakota to be able to have an event like this and showcase it to the world is, is huge for us because, when people think South Dakota, they think prairie's, they think farmlands.

They don't think of these beautiful rolling prairie's and the [inaudible 00:08:17] inspired landscapes. Especially for us in Custer State Park, you people are always blown away when they come here. They go, "Oh, I had no idea you had all this." Yeah, it's really a chance for us to show off that, that we're just not a fly-over state as well.

Lori Walsh: Are we doing anything differently because of the pandemic now, as far as people coming to observe the roundup? I mean it's outside and the people who are doing the work are not very close together, but there can be crowds that gather on hillsides to watch. What are the precautions?

Kobee Stalder: Yeah. This year we're going to run the roundup like we always have, with some extra precautions. We're going to have hand sanitizer stations available. We highly encourage those people that cannot be able to attend. It's all about what you feel comfortable doing, so if you feel like you can't attend this year, we completely understand that. We're going to work, we're actually working with South Dakota Public Broadcasting to live- stream the event. For those that can't attend, they can still enjoy that event in the comfort of their own homes. Yeah, we're going to have hand sanitizer stations available. The great thing is, it is outside. You can stay social distancing away from people you don't know. If you're coming with a small group, you can basically set up on the prairie where you feel comfortable to be able to view the event.

Yeah, that's, I think the biggest thing is, is that it's outside. That really helps us. I mean, we always recommend, if you feel more comfortable wearing a mask, please wear a mask. Our staff that are going to be driving in the vehicles and everything like that, we're going to take those safety precautions as well, just to make sure that everyone does have a safe and enjoyable roundup. Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of different ways. Again, the biggest thing I think, is that we're going to try to live-stream this event for those people that don't feel comfortable attending, just because, the crowd size and the people that they don't know and don't feel comfortable around. Having that Avenue's going to be huge for us this year, just to be able to offer that to people.

Lori Walsh: Kobee, we are out of time for Images of the Past. Thanks for joining us. We should probably leave people with another safety precaution, which is buffalo, bison are wild animals. Do not approach them. Leave that to the professionals. Kobee Stalder is the Visitor Services Program Manager at Custer State Park. Hey, Kobee, thank you so much. Be safe. We appreciate your time.

Kobee Stalder: Yeah. Thank you guys so much. Have a great day.

READ MORE: Images of the Past Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Images of the PastCuster State Park Buffalo Roundup
Rating: NR

Early film of an event that's now a major Black Hills event.