Where the Buffalo Roam

Sports Illustrated, 29 November 1993
© 1993 by Greg Breining

YOU'VE GOT TO FEEL for Bob Lantis. Born in the wrong century, he's a buckaroo trapped in the body of a traveling salesman. In his spare time, he dons a ten-gallon hat, strums a guitar and croons of dogies, broncos and bison. "I've been a chaser of buffalo in my mind for years," he muses.

Yet for a glorious moment every October, Lantis chases buffalo for real. That's when he joins about 40 other cowboys and Wild West wanna-bes who saddle up for the annual bison roundup in Custer State Park in South Dakota's Black Hills. Part work, part fun, part fantasy, the roundup combines all of the West's most potent symbols — cowboys, horses, bison and the wide-open prairie. Last fall some 1,500 spectators gathered to cheer them on and see a slice of the Old West.

Custer makes it clear why the Sioux consider the Black Hills sacred ground. With rugged mountains, pine-covered hills and rolling prairie, the park is a haven for wildlife. See wild turkeys, deer, and elk from your car window. Step onto your porch with your morning coffee to watch mountain sheep and bison graze outside the door.

Custer's bison herd is among the largest public herds in existence, numbering about 1,500 after calves are born in the spring. But like most herds, Custer's bison are confined, since nearby ranchers don't take to roving bands of one-ton animals tearing up their fences and mixing with their cattle. As the herd outgrows its 30,000-acre range, the park recruits about 40 horseback riders to help round up bison and cull surplus animals for market. A two-year-old fetches about $1,000. A late fall auction supplies about a quarter of the park's operating budget. The roundup, an event once attended only by park personnel and a handful of outside cowhands, has grown into a celebration of bison and Americana. The park must sort through applications from more than 100 would-be buckaroos. These days, even the governor hops astride a horse to help out.

"It's getting bigger every year," says Craig Pugsley, visitor service coordinator. To make things more exciting, park staffers push the herd down toward the corrals in advance of the roundup. "We used to round them up in this whole eight-mile area, and what would happen is that folks like you would come out and sit for six hours and never see anything," Pugsley says. "The buffalo hide in the timber, they turn back, they stampede in the wrong direction. Now people get to see the work of two or three weeks unfold in front of them in two or three hours. They get to see what they want to see, which is 1,400 to 1,500 head of buffalo being moved all at once by horseback and vehicle and helicopter." Yes, even the National Guard shows up to spot renegade bison and coax them, if necessary, with a whirlybird.

Bison — the term is synonymous with buffalo — can be surprisingly slippery for such big beasts. Bulls can weigh more than a ton, and cows about half that. Yet they can run as fast as a horse and with greater endurance. They can spin in tight quarters and dodge through rough terrain. "We had a cow that defied us seven, eight times," says Ron Walker, the park's resource program manager. "She had a route through the rocks she would take. She knew just where we couldn't go. She'd lead a band of about 50 head down through that — just repeatedly. We finally sorted out her bunch enough that she was down to seven. I was beginning to think, we need to shoot this cow. She'll destroy everything. 

"Finally the Sunday evening before the roundup, here she came with the other buffalo. Trotted down the draw. So I raced up and opened the gate and got out of the way. She looked at me, then sauntered through the gate and was in with the rest of them."

On Sunday, cowhands begin to arrive. Pickup trucks and horse trailers rumble into the horse camp. That afternoon, hundreds of park visitors gather for a chili feed and cook-off at the park's Blue Bell Lodge. In the evening, riders gather round a campfire, where Lantis holds center stage, playing a guitar and reciting cowboy poems, with a thousand stars overhead and a full moon rising over a burbling stream. 

The men and women who will ride come from far and wide. Larry Thompson, a retired hospital administrator who breaks horses, hails from Lame Deer, Mont. He imagines his great-grandfather clutching a bow and arrow and riding bareback through a sea of bison. "My ancestors did this," says Thompson, a Lower Brule Sioux. "I figure what goes around comes around, and now I'm having a chance to do it."

Louis Larson, who works for a horse trader near Minneapolis, will ride in his first roundup, though he's come to Custer for more than 30 years. "It's something I've wanted to do ever since I was a little boy," he says. "Once you get in there and the buffalo are running, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about."

"You get into this thing and it just grows on you," says Lantis. In his day job, Lantis, from Rapid City, S.D., peddles industrial chemicals to businesses, schools and hospitals. On the side, he takes hunters and tourists into the back country by pack train. "You anticipate all year long four hours of riding. We ride further than that going up to hunting camp, but it isn't nearly the anticipation. I think part of it is the chase factor. I always say deep down in my dirty black heart I'm hoping them mothers run like hell." 

MONDAY — DAY BREAKS the way it does out West, as golden as a brass bell, with the smell of sage and song of meadowlark. By 7:30 hundreds of spectators have massed on the ridge overlooking the corrals. Down by the chutes and fences, riders and park workers get last-minute instructions from Walker. After talking tactics, he gives newcomers a quick lesson in bison body language: "If their tail's up they're going to do one of two things — they're either going to charge you or discharge." The crowd laughs. Stick together, he warns. "We don't want any Lone Rangers down there."

The meeting breaks up to the jingle of spurs and crunch of gravel under boots. The pickups file through Movie Draw, setting for The Last Hunt and the bison stampede in How the West Was Won. The vehicles spread out at the far end of the valley. The horseback riders, meanwhile, split into three groups, flushing stragglers from steep ravines and the green ash in the creek bottom. These modern-day cowboys communicate with the truck drivers by two-way radio. One cowpoke even has a network's compact video camera duct-taped to his hat.

As riders work the flanks of the herd, trucks buck over the rocky ground, pushing the herd down the valley like a piston. With their huge heads and high humps, bison look like they're about to tip over forwards. Yet they run with astounding ease. "They just kind of float, don't they?" remarks pickup driver Doug Scott. As if to affirm the comment with an act of sheer joy, a running bull effortlessly pirouettes 360 degrees while keeping pace with the racing herd.

Thundering through a narrow pass toward the corrals, the 1,500 bison present a picture of the early days of this nation, when a 19th-century zoologist said bison were as plentiful as "fish in the sea," and a contemporary frontiersman reported traveling for three days against a river of bison that stretched to the horizon in all directions — a herd larger than Rhode Island.

But farmers shot bison to save their fences, soldiers destroyed them to starve hostile Plains Indians, market hunters killed them for their meat and hides, and "sportsmen" shot them by the thousands for fun. By the turn of the century, as few as 1,000 remained.

Since then, bison have stampeded back from the brink of extinction. About 150,000 roam North America's grasslands — more than at any time since the late 1800s. Public herds number about 17,000. But most of the rest graze on private ranches, where landowners are discovering that wildlife conservation and profits happily coincide. Adapted to the harsh Great Plains climate and coarse grass, bison need little care. Yet prices for meat and breeding animals are about 25 to 50 percent higher than for cattle.

Unfortunately, few of these bison roam free — only the 4,000 in Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park, about 3,000 in Yellowstone, and scattered small herds elsewhere. The rest of the world's bison are confined by fences. Like the prairie itself, they exist as small patches woven into the greater fabric of the modern landscape. 

THE CUSTER HERD lopes into the creek bottom near the corral, followed by of a storm of dust, riders and trucks. In the shelter of the cottonwoods, the herd splits and swirls like a whirlwind. A couple of bison squirt out past a truck. Instantly, dozens of bison follow at a gallop. 

"C'mon, push them," Scott yells in frustration from behind the wheel of his pickup. "Let them stand for a minute, they'll find a spot and go." A couple of trucks close the gap, forcing the whirling mass of bison back toward the corral. As the lead animals find the gate, the rest trot behind. By 9:40 the gate swings shut. Walker regroups the park staff to begin two days of branding and inoculating calves, and drawing blood to test sale animals for disease. 

The cowhands' work is done for another year. Lantis will return to sales and pack trips. The roundup was good, he says. "Real good. Too smooth. Kind of like it had milk cow syndrome." 

But you hear no complaint from Louis Larson, who's taking a breather in the back of a pickup. "Great, just great," he says. He pauses as if to reflect on the brown river of bison galloping under the blue prairie sky, and then smiles. "Better than great."