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Buffalo Roundup assesses Custer herd health

A loose bison flees from cowboys just feet from spectators
Brittany Neiles
Friends of SDPB
A loose bison flees from cowboys just feet from spectators

On a beautiful early autumn day in Custer State Park, thousands of people come from all over the world to see one thing – American bison cascading over the open prairie. From politicians to tourists, it seems visitors can’t get enough of the roundup.

The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of spectators to western South Dakota. While most locals are familiar with North America’s largest mammal, for many visitors it's their first glimpse of the animal.

That includes Jenni Mansch, a German journalist covering the roundup.

“As a child, I more or less grew up watching western movies," Mansch said. "So, for me this is all the wild wild west come reality. It charges all your senses. The smell, the landscape, the trees getting yellow in the fall. Looking that herd, and getting to know the buffalo roundup, how they work – the cowboys – what they do, what their work is. That was very fascinating.”

The roundup is about much more than photo ops for the governor and tourism industry. It’s a chance for a few dozen riders to take part in what some describe as the world’s most intense steeplechase. For others, the livestock sale offers a chance to possibly purchase bison for their own ranches.

For these high-profile animals, Dr. Dustin Brown said it’s an important day to take stock.

“So, these bison only get touched once a year. So, the rest of the time they’re out on pasture doing who knows what,” he said.

Think of this roundup as an annual physical for a bison herd of 1,500. Brown worked with a team to administer vaccines to the corralled animals.

“For the calves they’re getting their respiratory vaccine – Pyramid-5 is the one we typically use just because it’s very nice, very smooth vaccine," Brown said. "It protects them against most of the upper respiratory infections that young bovids can get.”

Due to their similar biology, bison are susceptible to many of the same diseases that can afflict cattle. Even anthrax, which devastated a livestock herd in Ziebach County just weeks ago, can make the jump between species.

Dr. Kayla Brown said it shows the utility of a strong vaccination campaign.

“The bison herd here at Custer State Park is no different than any other herd. They’re only as good as the care they receive and if you don’t do your typical annual maintenance on the herd then it just opens them up to disease and illness that we’re otherwise protecting them from and doing our due diligence to keep at bay,” Brown said.

The Browns are married and share a deep passion for keeping this herd and many others healthy for generations to come.

“I’m really proud of the work that we do, not only with Custer State Park but with our private ranches as well," Kayla Brown said. "The National Bison Association have really strived to make sure they have continuing education courses for producers and involving veterinarians as much as possible – I think they’re very proactive in that department.”
One thing is certain - the bison are the headliners of this show. Without this herd of 1,500 for cowboys and cowgirls to crack their whips at, there is no roundup. And the annual roundup plays an important role in that much-sought-after tourism market for South Dakota.

However, an unavoidable ethical concern orbits the roundup for the not-quite wild, not-quite tamed animals. Chad Kremer is the herd manager for the park. He said there is no “controlling” bison.
“A little story on that," Kremer said. "They sold the heaviest two-year-old bull [one] year – and after he was sold, he goes into another ring while they decide where to pen him. He made one lap around that, stopped in the middle, took a look, stepped and went right over the top of about a five-and-a-half-foot fence. I was just in awe.”
American bison are not fully domesticated. While some are more comfortable with humans than others, by nature most are skittish around us, especially with their young. In fact, the animals due to be vaccinated for visitors to watch at the roundup have to be brought to the corrals a day before the event to help them acclimate to the stress.
That raises the ethical question of how to best round up these nervous animals. On one hand, ranchers need to herd their cattle because, among other reasons, it leads to a higher vaccination rate. On the other hand, imagine the surprise for a family of three undomesticated animals standing alone, when suddenly, the rumble of horses and whip cracks come from over the hill.

110 years ago, the American bison was nothing but an afterthought on an endangered species list. That’s when Custer State Park introduced a herd of 36 animals which now numbers 1,500. Kremer, who is also the president of the National Bison Association, said he sees the opportunity to work with these animals as a privilege to be respected.
“There’s a lot of things specific to bison and their behaviors that show why they survived," Kremer said. "They tend to lead into the wind rather than follow with it. It’s that survival instinct they had over the years. Saying that, I’ve learned how to work with them in those habits and instincts and behaviors.”
There are serious challenges facing the American bison that have the potential to set back more than a century of conservation efforts. Challenges that are best addressed by people who care deeply about the wellbeing of their animals and advocate for strong vaccination campaigns.
Kremer said for an animal that was once critically endangered, the Custer herd is an example for the nation’s continuing reintroduction efforts.

“The National Bison Association a few years ago started promoting ‘Bison One Million’ – it’ll take us a little while to get there," Kremer said. "In the last two to three years in particular there appears to be quite a movement of a lot more people getting interested in raising bison. From a small scale, 10, 20, 30 head herds, all the way up to several hundred head.”

As of 2023, the U.S. Department of Interior reports bison – farmed or wild - can be found in all 50 of the United States.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture
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