CUSTER, S.D. — When Bennie and Elaine Barcroft first traveled to western South Dakota’s Custer State Park for its annual buffalo roundup and auction 10 years ago, they were looking to buy more buffalo for their herd back in Tennessee.
But they got hooked and now are among dozens of cowboys and cowgirls who help corral nearly 1,300 rumbling bison each year across picturesque Black Hills prairie.
“We started coming out for the sale and we fell in love with it,” said Bennie Barcroft, as he and his wife groomed one of their horses.
The Barcrofts and nearly 60 others on horseback will be cheered on by thousands of spectators from across the nation — and the world — who will gather Monday to watch the magnificent animals barrel down the prairie at speeds of up to 50 mph.
The onlookers have slowly descended on the sparsely populated area over the past several days, filling hotels in nearby towns such as Keystone, population 337.
For many, the allure is witnessing a scene that harkens back to the late 1800s when settlers first arrived. Aside from paved roads slicing through the landscape, the park largely looks just as it has for decades.
But for organizers of the event, the goal is to balance the bison and rangeland forage. Approximately 300 to 400 of the animals will be sold and shipped across North America, said Gary Brundige, resource program manager at Custer State Park. The buffalo will supplement existing herds, help start new herds or be used for meat.
The animals that remain will be sorted to brand newcomers, vaccinate others and check cows for pregnancy.
“We’ve really had a big influence on the re-establishment of the bison over the years with this live sale,” he added.
The event drew nearly 14,000 spectators in 2011, and organizers expect a similar turnout Monday, which will mark the event’s 47th year.
“It’s big. The numbers aren’t going down at all. It gets bigger every year,” said Custer State Park conservation officer Ron Tietsort, who has participated in the corral for the past 13 years.
Spectators have come from as far away as Germany, Australia and New Zealand to watch Tietsort and the other riders lead the bison into a fenced in area. About 20 of the riders are from a core team who take part in the event every year. Another 20 riders are chosen from an application process, and the last 20 spots are by invitation only, Brundige said.
Tietsort said it’s not always easy to catch and bring in the bolting bison, Tietsort said. Riders warn each other if they hear a cow or bull starting to snort, a sign that the animal is about to begin a chase.
“If you just get away from them, then they will go right back into the herd and keep moving them,” Tietsort said.
The riders and bison are both cheered by onlookers. Sometimes a buffalo will break free from the riders’ control, which encourages the spectators to become even more vocal.
Bill Kramer plans to apply to become a rider next year. Kramer, who traveled from Clarinda, Iowa, said he was mesmerized by the wide expanse of rolling prairie.
“Some of this land doesn’t even look real. It looks like a picture,” he said. “You get to a high point you can see more land than what some countries are. It’s just hard not to be impressed by it.”