Monday, September 04, 2006

American safari

The Jeep Wagonneer bounces over the dirt road, wind rushing through its open windows. The hunt is on.

This isn’t a hunt with gun or bow and arrow, though a certain number of those permits are offered by lottery each year. This is a wildlife safari, as enticing as its African counterpart. But we aren’t after elephants or lions or even the mammoths that once ranged these prairies. We’re after bison.

A herd ambles past, grazing and moving, moving, moving on a nightly migration. Leading is a dominant female, says guide Bud Pearthree; bison society of matriarchal.

Call them buffalos or bison, the huge-shouldered beast is the same. About 1,500 live here in the 71,000 acres of Custer State Park, S.D., the second largest state park in the nation. About 500 will be culled from the herd this fall; 1,000 will winter over. The others will be sold for breeding.

“I love the outdoors, and I love animals. I don’t classify this as work,’’ Pearthree says. For the past decade, he has come here from his winter home of Minnesota to tell some of the park’s 1.8 million annual visitors just about everything you could want to know about bison and other wildlife here in the park.

Ahead is a male pronghorn – an antelope-like animal – marking territory by digging and thing urinating and defecating on the ground, in preparation for the mating season. Pronghorn can run up to 60 miles per hour, Threepeach says; only a cheetah can catch them, and those don’t live in this part of the universe.

We spot mule deer, wild turkeys, quail, even a prairie dog. On the hard-top road, mules stick their heads in our Jeep, begging for food. We bounce into the back country in search of elk, with no luck.

But it’s the bison that again and again catch the attention. A bull can weigh a ton; a big cow can be 1,000 pounds. And while they don’t bother with our Jeep, bisons can be dangerous if you get out of your car or approach them. Several people have been gored over the years, and one even killed.

Once, 350,000-400,000 buffalo are said to have roamed North America, but by the late 1800s, the numbers were down to about 800. In 1913 the land that would become the park was established as a game reservation; buffalo were introduced in 1915, and the area became a public park in 1919. The Custer State Park herd is said to be the country’s largest.

And while you can often spot several from the road, a Jeep tour onto the back roads ups the chances of getting an up-close view. Of course, you can’t get out of the Jeep … your visit might get a little too personal.

A big bison event: Oct. 2 is this year’s date for the annual Custer State Park roundup, when the bison are herded into corrals for branding and tagging. More than 6,000 typically attend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds as if we've made the same trip!
We just returned from 24 days on the road with my wife's sister & her husband.
We visited Badlands NP, Mt. Rushmore & Custer SP, Deadwood (skip the casinos - eat @ Deadwood Thymes Cafe... you'll be glad you did), Devils Tower NM, Little Bighorn Battlefield, Glaicer NP, Yellowstone NP, Grand Teton NP & Jackson Hole.
On the way home we stopped to see the Oregon Trail Ruts in Gurnsey, Wy - very worthwhile. Also, a Pony Express post in Gothenburg, Ne - a nice town to visit - anyone eaten a Runza?
FJ & DJ - Miami, Fl.