For centuries, the American bison -- commonly called the buffalo – roamed the great plains of North America in numbers so great that early explorers claimed they could not count them.
But in the 1800's, the combination of growing demand for bison robes, a burgeoning railroad industry, and government hunting programs pushed the majestic animals to the brink of extinction. By 1893, only a few hundred bison remained of a herd that once was estimated at 60 million.
In 1905, the American Bison Society was formed with Theodore Roosevelt as honorary president. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to establish a number of wildlife preserves, and, with the help of private bison owners, the Society was able to stock a number of preserves and parks.
Though small by historical standards, today's herd is making a comeback. And as Andrew Batt discovered at Custer State Park this past fall, the American Bison is well on its way to recovery.
Shortly before sunrise in South Dakota's Black Hills, thousands of cars are already lined up for miles. On a late September morning, Custer State Park transforms into a throwback to the Old West. With the help of hundreds of volunteers and park officials, more than 1,300 bison roar over a distant hill and through a nearby valley.
Known as the Buffalo Roundup, the annual event has become a modern day symbol of an American Bison comeback.
The image is especially amazing considering the massive Great Plains herbivores were on the brink of extinction in the late 19th century. Excessive hunting of what the Lakota Native Americans call "Tatanka" decimated herd population to roughly 600 at one time.
Today, after more than 120 years of conservation, planning, and careful breeding, more than 500,000 bison exist across North America. Custer State Park's herd ranges anywhere between 1,200 to 1,500 – a number that would triple the entire American Bison population only a century ago. In the 1960's, park officials began an annual buffalo roundup in an effort to manage a growing herd.
Craig Pugsley, Visitor Services Coordinator, Custer State Park: "I've been here for more than thirty years and us old timers can remember when there were probably 200 people ‘yeehaaing' on the hill when the buffalo came in. Last year we had around 11,500 and we expect that many this year."
The annual South Dakota ritual has become an international sensation as visitors and media from across the globe descend on the Black Hills.
Craig Pugsley, Visitor Services Coordinator, Custer State Park: "It's a cool sight when a whole mass of buffalo comes thundering by and the dust flies and you can hear the ground shake. It really is something out of the Old West."
According to park officials, that Old West feeling was fueled in the early 1990's with a little help from Hollywood. (Slug scene from Dances with Wolves)
Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves sparked a newfound interest in South Dakota and the American Bison. In the years since, awareness of bison products has grown alongside the industry.
While still a niche market, nearly 4,000 Bison farms and ranches now populate the country raising the once endangered species for breeding and meat production.
Event organizers at the annual Buffalo Roundup take pride in showcasing the lean, low-fat bison meat. Thousands of visitors can mix their roundup viewing with bison chili tasting….bison sausage, and the popular buffalo burgers.
But marketing is only a taste of the overall buffalo roundup. For all the food and festivities, Custer State Park officials have a practical function to exercise every year. Cowboys and park vehicles form a 21st century cavalry to push bison across the South Dakota countryside.
Park veterinarians and volunteers wait to process the beasts in the park's corrals.
Visitors watch as Custer staff conduct a variety of branding, vaccinations, and pregnancy tests across the entire herd.
Gary Brundige, Resource Program Manager, Custer State Park: "We're really looking at culling the herd down to our over winter herd capacity. We use a number of criteria to determine what to do with the animals. We vaccinate the calves and test for brucellosis."
Brucellosis has been one of the few controversial aspects of bison production. The bacterial disease has received broad concern amongst cattle ranchers the Yellowstone Park herd in Montana and Wyoming. Cattle ranchers fear brucellosis could spread from infected bison to their animals and cause fertility issues. But Custer Park officials say that risk is low in South Dakota and proudly defend their herd as disease-free.
After processing, the park's herd manager decides whether to keep individual bison in the park or sell them at the annual buffalo auction.
Craig Pugsley, Visitor Services Coordinator, Custer State Park: "Each year we will sell 300 head of buffalo at annual auction after the roundup so we would do the roundup if no one showed up."
Nearly two months after the roundup, bison are auctioned off to prospective ranchers and breeders for anywhere between $500 for a heifer calf to more than $2,000 for a two-year old bull. The annual sale has spurred development of hundreds of private bison herds across the country and helps fill the Park's financial coffers. But officials are quick to point out that the Roundup isn't about raising money. The one-of-a-kind event is free to the public so tourists and the cowboy volunteers can revel in a unique American experience.
Kevin Macritchie, Hell, Michigan: "It's a touch on the Old West and I think a lot of people don't get to ride out here and whether they push cattle is one thing but buffalo is another."
David Bolton, Spring Hill, Kansas: "The nostalgic part of getting out and chasing buffalo ummm…words fail me. This is probably the most fun I'm capable of having but the whole atmosphere is outstanding."
For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.