It was hot, dusty and
dangerous but above all,
exciting, to be among 1500
stampeding bison as
Tessa Gates found when
she joined a buffalo round-up
ITS 6.30am and the sun is struggling to take the edge off the chill that comes with the early start. No one is late. Some people have waited years for the chance to take part – an invitation from Governor Janklow to the annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park, South Dakota, is as prized as Black Hills gold dust.
We convoy to the meeting point and eat doughnuts and coffee while we listen to our instructions and are assigned to our vehicles. Greenhorns, or whatever the cowboys call guests like me, will lurch and sway standing in the backs of trucks heading up and heading out the buffalo. No horses for us – only experienced cowboys get to saddle up for this event.
Cowboys like the Rider Boss, Bob Lantis. Its his thirtieth roundup and his fortieth wedding anniversary and not all the riders are as experienced as him. "I have to get a little loud to shape people up," he says. "New riders dont always realise what you want them to do. If they get ahead and screw up then I am there yelling, I am pretty good at that."
Buffalo are big – a bull will stand up to 6ft tall and weigh over 2000lbs, a cow weighs around 1200lbs. Unpredictable, dangerous and surprisingly fast movers, they can run at up to 45 miles an hour and can turn quickly, pivoting on their massive forequarters.
Bob, like many of the other cowboys, packs a pistol full of birdshot. "Sometimes they can get pretty aggressive – the tail goes up and she looks back, if you dont take care you have had it," says Bob. A shot in the air or a rear end peppering can make a cantankerous cow think twice.
Bob, who lives in Rapid City, is an outfitter – taking people on pack horse camping trips through the Black Hills, Badlands, and Yellowstone National Park. "Most of my horses are rejects – horses people thought were outlaws – but it was just the way people made them. They are good horses, they will run buffalo and I pack, ride and rope with them."
Of the 50 riders at the round-up 20 are mounted on his horses. "The core team is 15 riders – I only get to pick half of them. They have to have the ability to get in among the buffalo if a horse goes down. They have to run and hit the buffalo with the horses chest and get off that man. The horse has to have a lot of heart. Pit that horse against a tree and I aint saying hes got to climb it, but he should try to."
The cowboys ride in teams signified with coloured rags on their arms. For days beforehand, the buffalo which roam in small groups, have been gradually moved into bigger herds. Big as they are, the animals easily disappear in the parks 73,000 acres of mountain meadows, low foothills and granite peaks and spires.
We are now high on up on a hill top scanning the horizon and watching other teams working the rocky slopes across the valley or waiting for action. Bill Hill, "thirteen generations from the Mayflower," leads the cowboy team our truck is assigned to. "I have done 13 roundups and I always get butterflies. My primary goal is to get the buffalo in and do the job in hand – I have to make sure people stay safe.
"The older bulls, four or five-year-olds, are left out. They are too big to handle in the corrals. Two-year-old bulls go for breeding or meat. Ten-year-old cows are sold for breeding – they will live to be 25 and people will pay top dollar for them. The calves are vaccinated and branded.
"The Bison market is down on what it has been. People speculated up and saturated the market. In 1999 we made $1.2m in total sales but in 2000 it was $250,000. It was a big drop. All the money goes towards park funding."
We are getting restless. The sun is up and hot. Horses neigh and nicker, flies are biting, drivers sweat, truck passengers rub their bruises and check they are ready to hang on, the downhill run will be even more hair-raising than the trip up here. Old hands swap stories and no one underestimates the excitement to come.
"This is my second roundup," confides Kay Swedholm. "The adrenalin is fantastic when the big push comes by the horsemen. The rocks look like mountains and holes look like canyons. You are afraid your horse will stumble and you will go down." He breaks off as two groups of buffalo come over the hills opposite.
"Theres a whole bunch coming across the top – dont push them too fast," crackles the truck radio. Our job is to push them in from the right – the riders move forward and we head on down.
The herds move fast and fluidly like flocks of birds, apart then joining together, then breaking up again. Suddenly a whole bunch whirls back on itself away from where we want them, scattering riders and trucks in their tracks. These are wild animals and they are not coming in quietly.
Gradually the herds are gathered on the plain and held there until all of them are together. The tension is palpable. In the distance by the corrals the public is waiting to see the final push from the viewing area. One of the cowboys unfurls the Stars and Stripes and rides ahead. Nothing must go wrong now.
We are off! The air is heavy with red dust and the smell of trampled sagebrush, as ahead, beside and behind us a sea of hot stampeding flesh threatens to engulf us. This is where the truck driver proves his worth protecting riders and herding the buffalo at speed and I wish I hadnt heard another driver shout to us earlier "have you still got everyone on board – hes a mad driver that one!"
The buffalo are charging straight for us and our driver is racing to head them off, I think. But still they thunder towards us and there are fences ahead. The truck stops. As panic starts to rise I feel like I am caught in a scene from an old John Wayne movie and look round for a white-hatted hero to come to the rescue.
Then I realise the buffalo are heading not for the truck but for a small gap in the fence – aah this is the idea, it pinches them in and slows them down as they are channelled to the corrals.
They come past in their hundreds, dust laden, hot and grunting. We trail them to the corrals and watch the huge gates shut. Job done.
Legs shaking, throat parched from dust and yeha -ing, like the bison I head for the nearest watering hole.
• The next roundup at Custer State Park will be Sept 30, 2002.
Northwest Airlines flies to Rapid City, South Dakota from London/Gatwick via Minneapolis/St Paul. Details on www.nwa.com
• Custer State Park uses the roundup and auction to annually reduce the herd to prevent overgrazing in the 73,000 acre park.
• The park has between 1400 and 1500 head of buffalo depending on calving success.
• A cow/calf pair requires approx 17acres of range land for grazing.
• Around 200 calves are retained in the herd each year. They are vaccinated for Brucellosis, IBR (respiratory disease) parasites, pinkeye and clostridial build up.
• Calves sold at auction weigh 330-390lbs.
• Most buffalo sold at the November auction go to the development of private herds for meat production.
Mature cows $587
Two year old heifers $732
Yearling heifers $421
Heifer calves $343
Breeding bulls $2,345
Bull calves £194
Yearling bulls $603
Two year old bulls $863
Overall combined average (Nov 2001) was $511 for 420 head which resulted in total sales of $214,620. This money is used to support the running of the park.
Horses and riders need a lot of nerve to face running buffalo.
Cracking the whip: Rider Boss Bob Lantis (right) has experienced 30 buffalo round-ups.