Buffalo Roundup is a one-of-a-kind experience
By Governor Kristi Noem
Sept. 24, 2021
The Buffalo Roundup is one of my favorite events to host as the governor. Once a year, tens of thousands of spectators gather on a hillside at Custer State Park to watch 60 cowboys and cowgirls (along with a dozen 4WD vehicles) round up almost 1,500 American Bison. It’s an amazing scene that brings our history and culture to life, and all for a good cause.
The annual event — this year is the 56th annual Buffalo Roundup — also includes a three-day Arts Festival. The roundup offers an opportunity to showcase three keystones of life in South Dakota: our beautiful landscapes, the iconic buffalo, and a long history of cowboy culture.
I’ve ridden in the Buffalo Roundup many times, and I still get excited when I feel the rumble of the herd running through the hills. Custer State Park is my favorite place to be in South Dakota. Adding the Roundup to it brings nostalgia for the great cowboys who have made their mark on our state.
James “Scotty” Philip, who is credited as “the man who saved the buffalo,” is a key figure in why the Buffalo Roundup is possible today. Philip served in the South Dakota State Senate. He was also a prolific rancher who was passionate about preserving the iconic symbol of the West, the American Buffalo. He purchased a herd and built the first-ever enclosed “Buffalo Park.”
Scotty was committed to returning herd numbers to what they once were. While we haven’t gotten there yet, the herd at Custer State Park is an example of how responsible management can ensure the buffalo remains an enduring symbol of the American West. The genetics of the buffalo in this herd can be traced back more than 100 years. That is worthy of our conservation efforts.
There also are cowboys like Bob Lantis who at 86 years old has ridden in the Roundup for almost 50 years. Bob has seen this event grow from a few cowboys to now dozens who participate annually and come from around the country. That includes his son and grandsons who rode with us in this year’s roundup. And Bob has no intention of quitting anytime soon.
Buffalo Roundup is a dramatic start to fall tourism following an already busy peak season for the western region of our state.
Mount Rushmore and the Badlands National Park both saw an uptick in visitors with a 17% and 25% increase, respectively. Badlands Park Superintendent Mike Pflaum recently reported that July was the busiest month ever at the park.
State parks, like Custer, are also seeing record increases, with an overall boost of 34% in visitors. Custer State Park, with its many camping grounds, trailheads, and wildlife loop road, saw a 23% increase in visitors.
About 20,000 people attend the Roundup each year. This event allows us to educate visitors about this historic herd – one of the oldest buffalo herds in the country.
Great care is taken to ensure the herd is both sustainable and healthy. To maintain our efforts, the Roundup is followed by an annual auction where bidders can purchase buffalo from this historic herd. I bought five buffalo last year that now live at my ranch near Watertown.
This year’s auction will feature about 370 buffalo for sale. The number of buffalo auctioned is chosen specifically to meet the goals of health and sustainability.
In the last five years, 1,689 buffalo have been sold at the auction, raising $3.02 million for the park fund. That money supports trail management, road maintenance, and other key features to keep the park in top working condition.
There are so many reasons to love the Buffalo Roundup. The most important part, though, is promoting Custer State Park as the best example of balancing habitat and access for visitors. South Dakota will always protect our parks and preserve our heritage. We must provide opportunities for future generations to experience and enjoy all that our great state has to offer.