“Oh Give Me a Home, Where the Bison Roam….” :: South Dakota

The ground starts coming alive. It begins shaking. An ominous cloud of dust comes closer and closer, followed by a menacing grumble of thunder that keeps building until the noise becomes almost deafening. My heart is pounding. I can barely catch my breath. My palms break out in sweat when I catch my first glimpse of the mass of huge gray-matted beasts cresting the hilltop– hundreds strong, galloping at full speed. And it looks like each shaggy brute is heading straight toward me.

This is the part of the movie when I’m supposed to scream myself awake, bolt upright in bed, and find out it’s “Only a Dream”.

But it wasn’t. As luck would have it, I was invited to participate in South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds’ 43rd Annual Buffalo Round-up at Custer State Park, easily one of the most exciting adventures of my lifetime. It was like winning the Miss America contest, after Howie Mandel opens my briefcase which IS holding the million dollars, while George Clooney whispers in my ear that “I am the one he’s been waiting for his whole life”.

Although I like to think that they held the September roundup just for my enjoyment, the real purpose is to keep the park’s free-roaming bison population, which number around 1500 by the summer’s end, on a par with the available grassland forage, which supports only about 1000 bison for the winter. The process begins when the whole herd is driven into the corrals by a handful of expert cowboy and cowgirls on horseback assisted by park rangers in pick-up trucks (and me.) Next the rangers brand, vaccinate, and select about 400 buffalo for the November auction releasing the rest back into the park. The sales revenue helps support this 71,000-acre park, home to one of the world’s largest publicly-owned bison herd park.

Notes from my diary:

September 27, 2008

We check into the very comfy Custer State Park Game Lodge which is our headquarters for the three-day event. Things start off innocuously enough with a gigantic pancake breakfast at the lodge’s adjacent fairgrounds. There is a wide selection of booths where local artisans make and sell everything western; from buffalo nickel jewelry to assorted leathercrafts (loved those chaps), and some deliciously chewy bison jerky. Buy a fresh bison burger from one of the food booths and mosey over to the stage where you can listen to top country musicians, hear tall tales spun by cowboy poets, or watch dancers performing everything from clogging and square dances to Native American drummers and flute players.

September 28,

The Buffalo Wallow Chili Cookoff is always held the day before the roundup- kind of like a big group pasta feed before the marathon. The competition is fierce, and many competitors come dressed in costume complete with their own cheering section. Each of the 30 contestants is given eight pounds of buffalo meat and then anything goes. Judges consider the resulting flavor, texture, consistency, aroma and blend of spices when choosing the winner. Suggestion: Come hungry for tasting & bring Tums.

You’ll want to make it an early night because the roundup gets going at dawn.

September 29th

It’s still dark when we’re driven to the corral area where the visiting journalists and filmmakers are assigned to the back of a pick-up truck. Each truck is driven by a trained park worker, who has been given careful instructions and will be in constant phone contact with the other vans. We drive along the back roads to take our assigned place along the Wildlife Loop road. Although it’s still early there are already thousands of spectators lining the two choice hillside viewing locations.

After all the trucks and horses are positioned just so, we hear the crackling voice over the walky-talky giving us the green light. We whoop and holler, emit ear piercing taxi-cab whistles, while those on horseback are waving their hats and cracking whips to get the pack moving in the right direction. For the next hour we weave in and out of the undulating bodies, (trying desperately to hold on and not get bounced out of the pickup bed) trying to cut off strays that decide to make a run for it. Right in front of us, two particularly massive old bulls (each had to weigh almost a ton) decide to have a turf war (boys will be boys) and engage in a horn-to-horn wrestling match. Then in the blink of an eye, they stop their fight and both come charging straight at our truck. Our unflappable woman driver shrieks, “Hold on,” guns it and we escape by a bison hair, circle back and head after the culprits. Yeehaw! After plenty of heart thumping excitement, the bison are all penned and ready for the selection process.

Dusty and banged-up, we climbed out of the truck and hugged or high-fived each other, all jabbering at once about the incredible job we did as we saunter into the huge tent for some home-from-the-range cowboy grub– and a handful of Ibuprofen.

***Note: Buffalo or Bison?
When I started asking people if there was a difference between a buffalo and a bison I got a whole slew of answers but the majority of folks thought they were the same.
I particularly enjoyed Wikipedia’s answer:
Q: What is the difference between a buffalo or bison?
A: There really isn’t any difference, with the exception that you cannot wash your hands in a buffalo. (You have to think British to understand this one ;-))

After digging deeper I discovered that although ‘buffalo’ is the most popular name used to describe the North American animal, it really is a misnomer. Although bison and buffalo belong to the same family, Bovidae, real ‘buffalo’ are native only to Africa and Asia. What we have roaming the American west are actually Bison, (which have the distinctive oversized shaggy heads.)
Or if you want to be really P.C. you can refer to them as Tatanka which in the Lakota Indian language means ‘big or large thing.”

But when all is said and done, I think it’s just because it’s harder to sing Home on the Range using “bison.”


Roundup is Monday at the end of September or early October. Check website for exact date.

There are many motel rooms in the nearby towns of Custer, Keystone and Hill City or campsites in the park but if you want a really comfortable stay right in the thick of things, I highly recommend staying in the Custer Park Game Lodge They offer a tummy-warming hearty buffet breakfast.

Mount Rushmore – View the inspirational sculpture of America’s big four presidents, one of the world’s most recognized symbols of democracy. Save time to explore the museum.

Crazy Horse Memorial —See the granite mountain that is being carved into the world’s largest sculpture in memory of the Sioux chief who led the attack on Custer’s men at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Hop the 1880 Train Ride a vintage steam train through the Black Hills of South Dakota offering gorgeous views.

Four Mile Old West Town: Known as “the friendliest little ghost town in the Dakota Territory.” Wander through over 50 historic buildings including a saloon, jail, outhouse, schoolhouse, etc. as you listen to stories about the good old days.

Prairie Berry Winery
: This unique award-winning winery, makes a variety of traditional native grape wines as well as scrumptious dessert “prairie berry” wines using local rhubarb, chokecherry, and raspberries, etc. Open daily.

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  1. Stephan L. Cohen says:

    Another one of Janice’s incredible stories! I feel like I was rounding up the buffalo–I mean bison–myself. Where’s the next adventure?

  2. I am wondering….is Buffalo like steak? Is it a healthful alternative?
    Also, is it expensive and are there different cuts…some more
    tender or flavorful than others?
    Asking because my husband and I love red meat, but our cholesterol
    is too high.

    thank you.

  3. Wondeful imagery with an interesting spin on the differentiation in the Bovidae family – you fail to mention the advice overheard when Buffalo Bill was mentoring his nudist son, Bronco Bruce, on how to win the 1836 Naked National Rodeo…
    “Listen ‘ere .. if yer don’t wanna stand by son in the losers corral, remember when you ride in the buff, low hangin’ balls must be tucked way up in yer holster!”

  4. Loved your article. Who would have thought that roundin’ up Bison could be soooooo exciting. Sigh me up for next year! Do they allow teen age kids? Could be a fun father son vacation. Pam

  5. Hi Suni,

    Good Questions- and even better answers.
    It tastes BETTER than beef steak, sweeter, with no fatty mouth feel. PLUS it has only 1/4 the fat of beef (and about 1/3 the fat in chicken),therefor much lower in cholesterol and is loaded with vitamins and minerals. It has the same cuts as beef, so some parts are good for broiling, stir frying and roasting, while the tougher parts work well in a slow cooker, for a great tasting chili or stew.

    Here’s some more scientific facts:

    While buffalo meat tastes similar (slightly sweeter) to a high quality cut of beef, buffalo meat stands out as being much higher in nutrition (as do all game-type meats). In fact, buffalo has less cholesterol than chicken with the skin removed or even most fish. Bison’s nutritional profile includes 60-80% less fat than beef (depending on the cut), 35% less cholesterol, 30% higher in protein, 69% more iron, no hormones, steroids or antibiotics and there has not been any cases of E coli.

    Research on the health benefits of eating bison has been published by many major universities, (Cornell, U. of Utah, U. of South Dakota, Penn State, even the U. of Bristol in England) and they all confirm that Buffalo are very high in the essential fatty acids and have an excellent ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 acids and contain CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) which is an Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid, a “good fat” that enhances the body’s ability to promote a healthy metabolism.

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