Friday, October 05, 2007

Buffalo Roundup

Custer State Park was founded as a hunting reserve, the first structure in there was the State Hunting Lodge, and the 77,000 acres were stocked with buffalo, elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats, ring neck pheasants, and so on, for the edification of the hunting elite. You can still get a very upscale and fabulously cooked and presented game meal at the Lodge restaurant. I think there is some hunting still, to control the populations, but by and large, the state park is now a sort of drive through zoo. You can camp here and stay at any of 5 lodges. There are jeep tours, and chuckwagon tours and trail rides.

The big draw is the herd of buffalo, roughly 1,500 of them. You drive around the various roads, and hope that you will see them, along with antelope, prairie dogs, and deer, (all native). There is a herd of donkeys too, which were used for pack trips and now run wild, well not very wild, they stage regular holdups looking for food. I guess if you get up early enough you can see the elk and the other exotics. Actually, the mountain goats all escaped and now run wild whereever there are nice rocks. They can frequently be seen at Mt. Rushmore, watching the tourists.

Once a year, around the first of Oct., they have a roundup of the buffalo. Ostensibly for herd management, to brand, vaccinate and assess the new calves, and to cull the herd to the right size for the grass, this has become a big tourist draw. The idea of seeing buffalo thundering over the prairies, instead of standing bored in a pen is irresistible, and I signed up for the bus ride.

We left at 6:30 AM, with an amusing bus driver, and followed the signs to the right parking place. There must have been more than 15,000 people there, sitting in chairs, all bundled up against the early morning chilly wind. We were arranged on two hillsides over looking a valley that the buffalo will pass through on the way to the big corrals. The road closes at 9:00 AM and the drive is expected to begin at 9:30. At this point. I begin to suspect that this is theater. People are searching the hillsides with binoculars and speculating and telling what happened the previous times. A group next to us raises reindeer commercially, they have two hides on their chairs and discuss the upcoming holiday season of reindeer appearances. They are good to eavesdrop on, partly because they have at least some insight on working with :wild: bovines, and partly because one woman (a retired teacher)holds forth at classroom volume on just about anything that she thinks of. The general flavor of the day and the crowd remind me of the annual big event at Bread and Puppet’s home base in VT. Thousands of people descending on a huge field to see something magic. (I can’t explain here what Bread and Puppet is, a sort of marriage of hippie commune and huge puppets that put on a strange unnamable pageant)

Suddenly (and suspiciously promptly) at 9:32, there is a dark moving line on a distant hill. We can just see riders and trucks behind and along side, and then they all spill over the hill, ants streaming at a full gallop. As they get closer, we can see that the buffalo are not cooperating, bits of the herd take off on other directions, and are chased by cowboys and trucks. As the first herd is milling around, yet another group comes on stage left and joins up with them, swelling the herd. After a breather, they are pushed on, right at the fence that separates them from the crowd, they go the wrong way, are headed off, and then go thundering by us headed for the gates into the corral.

Oh joy, what a sight! These beast are huge, the bulls can weigh a ton and stand 6 feet at the shoulder. They are very massive in front partly by build, but also they have way more hair on the front than the back. The hindquarters are actually smallish, and their legs don’t seem longer than domestic cattle. You wouldn’t think they could go so fast, or turn so fast, but a number of times a group will light off and try to escape, to be chased with enthusiasm by the riders and trucks. Finally they are all in a big field next to the corrals, still milling and panting.

We are all thrilled, bubbly with excitement. It was a wonderful thing to see. I am only a little disappointed that the wind was so strong that we couldn’t really hear the thunder, or maybe we did and just thought it was the wind. What a sight they were, running flat out, the babies keeping up with the bunch. I can sort of multiply it all by 1,000 and get a glimpse of what the plains looked like in the old days.

We all straggle down off the hill and walk up the road to the corrals. The herd is resting, and we often have to stop and just look at them, remembering the great stampede.

Was it a real stampede? Is a full tilt gallop the only way they can be moved? Cattle should not be run like that, hard on the steaks and dangerous for the cowboys. They are more properly moved in a sort of gently suggested amble. Western range cattle are pretty wild, and they can get to running pretty easily. On the other hand they usually spend the winter in smaller protected fields getting hay thrown at them. I think they may feed the buffalo too. I overheard that a lot of the buffalo were actually waiting by the gate the morning before, and had to be moved back so the show would go properly. So I am undecided how much stage-managing went on. The cowboys and girls ( buffalo boys ?) on horseback are a great sight. Apparently, one must volunteer and be trained for this, and serve a sort of apprenticeship back in the hills before you can be a part of the main event. A cranky buffalo would make short work of a horse and rider.

At the corrals, the big herd that did the show is resting, and another group, brought in earlier, is there to begin the branding, sorting and vaccinating. They wait in small groups in individual pens, only a fence away from us. It is a pretty stout fence and includes strips of metal guard rails.. I stood there for a long time, just watching. The calves never got separated, and stay close, nursing sometimes. They have purposely left the really big bulls out on the hills, because they are very dangerous to be around, although there is one all by himself in a corral. He periodically runs at the fence where people are watching in a business-like way. Several of the cows are grumpy too, shoving others out of the way, and also rushing at the fence to scare us.

I’m still wondering about how dangerous they really are, when a big yellow tractor with a massive metal gate mounted on the front comes into this corral, moving fast, and cuts out some of the buffalo and drives them into another pen. Just like a cutting horse, but with armor. When it is time to begin the processing, the same tractor is joined by an even bigger one with a huge curved fence on the front. No one on a horse, no one on the ground, just steel and machinery to move the buffalo. They are urged through the chutes and into the vet “squeezes” with noisy black plastic garbage bags on broom-sticks. There isn’t much to see, they are entirely hidden by green metal walls, although they are let out into a round pen afterwards, pretty revved up for the crowd in the grandstands. Ooooo. O00000.

I stand and watch for a long time, wondering what these beasts are like. They don’t make much noise, only a sort of grunting, and a cough when they are upset. None of the bawling that cattle make. Confined in the corral, they do a lot of pushing and shoving. They act as though being this close to each other is very irritating. Most of the shoving is by the teenage bulls, predictably. I think they would normally be sort of ostracized by the cows and calves. The big bulls do become pretty solitary, grumpy Dads off by themselves resting up for the mating season, and probably secretly watching foot ball games on TV.

There is a catered lunch, barbecued buffalo on a bun, beans, chips and a cookie. We all line up and then carry our food into a tent, but the wind is vicious and we have to eat holding onto everything at once and quickly before everything was covered with dirt. Our eyes are scratchy, and the tents put up by the folks selling “art” are trying to stampede. Not a very pleasant feeling, and many of the people I came with have fled to the bus way before the time to leave.

I ate and bought a T-shirt and went back to the corrals to watch the buffalo until it was time. I spent much of my childhood hanging out with dairy cows, and I kept looking for anything of them in the buffalo. There is a lot, they are bovines, live in a herd, have much the same sort of life. But the buffalo have not been selectively bred for anything except to be a buffalo and survive. There are a number of ranches raising them for beef, I wonder if they are selecting for attitude. I wonder if buffalo on a farm are more tractable than these “wild” ones.

It doesn’t matter, really, if it was stage managed, it was a splendid event, the buffalo and the people. If you have a chance, go see it.


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