CUSTER STATE PARK -- The buffalo turn and charge our truck. Cows with calves, young buffalo, bulls -- they thunder toward us, trail dust kicking up all around.
It's quite a sight. When even a portion of the 1,200-strong herd, some animals pushing two metres tall and topping 860 kilograms, rushes you, it tends to grab your attention.
We cling to the support bars around the back of the pickup -- me, a German photographer and an Italian documentary film crew. The air is blue in three different languages as the buffalo -- bison really, but known in these parts as buffalo -- part and swoosh around the chase truck.
These magnificent creatures only look lumbering. Buffalo can run 60 kilometres an hour over long distances; they can outrun a horse in a sprint. And, as we learn on this hot day, they may stop, tongues out, panting, seemingly spent, but not for long. The protruding tongues open their airways, says Chad Kremer, the park's buffalo-herd manager and a real-live cowboy, and the buffalo are ready to go again in minutes.
It's the annual South Dakota governor's buffalo roundup, and I remind myself there's been only one fatality in more than 40 years of the roundup.
Once a year, the buffalo at Custer State Game Park are herded from every corner of the park's 30,000 hectares, where they truly do roam, and brought into the corrals for medical attention and branding (this is the real west). Calves are wormed and vaccinated, cows are checked for pregnancy. Some are sold at auction, both live and for meat.
It's a massive operation, considering the herd was pretty much a last-ditch attempt to save the buffalo from extinction. In the early 1800s, best guess puts 60 million bison roaming the Prairies. Less than a century later, over-hunting and wasting the animal -- ranchers shot them to save grasslands for cattle, tourists shot them from trains for fun -- a mere handful were left.
The state park's herd, the largest publicly owned one in the world, springs from five animals spared in an 1881 hunt by a South Dakota man who used them to develop a small herd with the specific goal of saving them from extinction. Some of the offspring of those animals formed the core of the herd that has lived at the park since about 1913.
It might be a conservation effort, but it sure feels like the Wild West. The roundup is done on horseback, followed by chase trucks filled with media and guests of the governor. Horses and trucks working together get the job done. If buffalo run into a copse of trees, horses can chase them out. If the buffalo stampede, the horses can get behind the trucks.
Chad Kremer is riding his quarter-horse Colonel this day. In a black Stetson and chaps, a large bushy moustache, a revolver in his holster, Kremer looks like he stepped out of a Roy Rogers movie. It's an interesting occupation for a man who didn't grow up dreaming of being a cowboy. A farm boy, he was steeped in hogs and cattle, and it wasn't until he discovered buffalo that he took to life on the range. He's been herd manager here since 2001.
Why is he armed? His .22 revolver is just loaded with birdshot to "dissuade" the buffalo if they charge. That's a genuine hazard; Buddy, Kremer's other horse, has been gored twice. Birdshot can be enough to turn a charging buffalo away.
And what do you do when it doesn't work? Kremer hesitates, then suggests, "Hope you're on a fast horse."
Kremer knows all about that. Not only does he oversee the buffalo, he oversees the cowboys and cowgirls who drive the herd in. Generally, that's about 60 riders -- 20 drawn from a lottery, the rest professional riders or invited guests. They ride hard and fast, Kremer says, and he's careful to make sure both riders and horses are up to the task.
The work of the roundup used to be a fairly isolated event. The park sees 1.8 million visitors a year, but it wasn't until actor Kevin Costner -- a bit of a cult hero here -- shot Dances With Wolves nearby in 1990 that the roundup really caught on.
It's the only roundup in the world that welcomes the public to watch. The year after the movie's release, 3,000 people unexpectedly showed up, and the crowd grows every year: In 2010, more than 14,000 people came to stand on Governor's Hill in the park and cheer as the thunder of thousands of hooves and great clouds of dust came over the horizon.
This year's roundup is on Monday, Sept. 26.
IF YOU GO
How to get there: Less than a 13-hour drive, south on the I-29 to Sioux Falls, west on I-90.
What to bring: Folding chairs, cameras, binoculars, layered clothing, rain gear and sunscreen.
Where to stay: Any of the four lodges in Custer State Park, but State Game Lodge is most closely aligned with the roundup.
For more information: gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer/events/buffalo-roundup.aspx
Buffalo safari: Take a Land Rover tour of Custer State Park's plains and see where the homesteaders struggled to make a go of it and notorious horse thief Lame Johnny was hanged. Don't miss the drive up to Gobbler's Knob, 1,200-metre elevation, for a bird's-eye view of the vast plains.
Fishing: There's a saying here: If it looks fishy, stop and fish in it. U.S. presidents -- from Coolidge to Bush -- have enjoyed the park's trout-stocked ponds. Park staff still chuckle when they talk about the day Barbara Bush out-fished the lot of them.
Needles Highway: A spectacular 20-kilometre drive through pine and spruce forests and rugged granite mountains. The road's name comes from the needle-shaped formations that spike the horizon.
Crazy Horse: Soon to be the largest sculpture in the world, the massive carved mountain honours Crazy Horse, a great leader of the Oglala Lakota.
Mount Rushmore: That other carved mountain honours presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt (for, among other achievements, developing the U.S. park system, starting with Custer State Park).
Deadwood: South Dakota's sin city, where gambling and gunslinging live on. Best place for dinner: the Deadwood Social Club, above the notorious Saloon #10, rumoured to have been one of the town's brothels.http://iP,.