Buffalo Roundup 2023


My binoculars held steady on a view of the ridge. “There they are!” shouted a spectator.

Thousands of witnesses, all strangers for the most part but at that moment all united, faced the same ridge with anticipation for the buffalo to crest the hill. 

Ramble Dog attended this year’s Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park. It was a serendipitous event for us, since we were unaware of it until we arrived in the Black Hills late September. With gathered information from multiple sources, we made our plan for the event. This was a big deal! We set our alarm for 4:00 a.m., filled up with fuel on the way out, and then drove 28 miles down the dark and winding park roads. There we waited in a long line of vehicles for the gates to open.

Crowd at the Buffalo Roundup

We finally reached the south parking lot by 7:30 a.m. With the spirit of the roundup, we were rustled into our parking space by a lot rustler blowing a whistle, shouting cattle calls, and using big arm movements for us to follow. “Haaa, Heee, Yooh, yeehaw, come on Ram truck.”

Spectator at the Buffalo Roundup
State Park Ranger supervises crowd at the Buffalo Roundup

“Custer State Park is home to one of the largest American bison herds in the world. The annual roundup keeps the population in balance with the available land and resources.” The yearly Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup has taken place each fall since the early 1960s. Custer State Park has had a long tradition of using private citizens to help with its annual buffalo roundup. Qualified volunteers are chosen for the South Dakota Buffalo Roundup by a drawing and together with park personnel and the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, about sixty riders gather the herd and move the stampeding creatures toward the corrals. It is a great event, one enjoyed by almost 25,000 spectators from across the country each year.

Governor Kristi Noem at the Buffalo Roundup

It’s the wild, wild west.
It gets really rough and
it’s challenging and
dangerous, but boy
is it fun.

Kristi Noem, South Dakota Governor.

The park’s winter prairies can only sustain about 1,000 bison. This year’s herd contained over 1,500. Buffalo are rounded up safely in the corrals each fall. Calves are branded and vaccinated, each are inspected for disease or injury, and some are sorted to be sold. An auction is held in November to sell the surplus. Buyers from all over the United States purchase these bison to start their own herds. The public is also invited to watch the animals move through this process in the corrals.

Pancake Breakfast at the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
Horseback riders observe buffalo at the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Crowds had been waiting in lines for hours, in lines of vehicles, in lines for a pancake breakfast, in lines for a port-o-potty. The projected start time had come and went and even with a few beasts in sight, we still waited in lines along the fence.

Buffalo herd crest the hill while horse riders and trucks steer them toward the corral

Finally, a handful of black dots gathered in the horizon, each grazing slowly with no comprehension of what was about to come. The herd on the hill increased as the anticipation of the spectators filled the air. And then, like a bolt of lightning, the bulk of the herd made their move down the hill. Brave horseback riders, charged with gathering the scattering beasts into one large group, stampeded ever closer. The massive heads of bison charged toward us, their collective force of hooves thundered out a heartbeat of America’s history.

Cowboy holding American Flag during the Buffalo Roundup

Cheers from the crowds urged man and beast toward the finish line. A posse of horseback riders, quads, and pickup trucks rode alongside the oncoming storm of buffalo, pushing the herd toward the corrals. John and I, determined to document our experience, clicked away with our cameras. In the blink of an eye, the spirited tradition of Custer State Park was over leaving dust drifting in the air and my indelible connection to this Black Hills legacy.

Tatonka Custer State Park Guide

If you are passionate to learn more about Custer State Park and the Buffalo Roundup, this year’s copy of the annual publication  2023 Tatanka has a free downloadable copy

The 2024 Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival event is on September 27, 2024.