Of course, here in Custer State Park’s backcountry, the animals don’t have to mind their manners. This is their turf — all 71,000 acres of it. Luckily, the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour goes into the heart of that territory, showing you pronghorn, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and, of course, the star attraction — buffaloes. The wildlife reserve is home to roughly 1,300 of the shaggy beasts, one of the biggest publicly owned herds in the world. I’m an animal lover, so the buffalo adventure was the first activity I booked when Amanda and I decided to spend four days exploring the Black Hills of South Dakota in July.
For our evening tour, we met our guide, Harry Hellon, as well as Harriet and her husband, Gerry, near the State Game Lodge, President Calvin Coolidge’s rustic 1927 summer retreat (and our accommodations for the trip). We piled into the Jeep, and Hellon informed us that he’d just gotten intel on a big buffalo herd deep in the park.
As we drove along the Wildlife Loop, an 18-mile road through rolling grasslands flush with critters, caramel-colored pronghorns began popping up on either side of the road. The antelope-like creatures are the fastest land animals in North America. Hellon pointed out buffalo wallows — large depressions in the earth where the behemoths roll to scratch those hard-to-reach spots. A gaggle of wild turkeys waddled by.
Hellon filled us in on local history: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Plains settlers were killing buffaloes by the tens of thousands. By the time then-South Dakota Gov. Peter Norbeck signed the bill establishing the wildlife reserve of Custer State Park in 1919, there were virtually none left.
Under the park’s protection, native species such as mule deer, white-tailed deer and pronghorn flourished, as did the nonnative elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats introduced into the area. The park gradually added buffaloes purchased from a South Dakota rancher and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The buffaloes that live in Custer today are descendants of that original stock. To keep the population stable, all the buffaloes are rounded up each September, and about 300 are later sold at auction.
We veered off the Wildlife Loop onto a narrow, rocky dirt path. “This is going to be a rough ride,” Hellon hollered as he hit the gas, making the Jeep lurch from side to side and tossing us around like rag dolls. Harriet was shouting something about getting whiplash when we finally bounced to a stop at a scenic overlook, admiring the mosaic of greens — silvery sagebrush, yellowish-lime clover — that stretched over the cascading hills.
“Let’s go find some buffalo!” Hellon announced, and rumbling back down we went, rounding a corner onto an arresting scene: hundreds of brown humps sprinkling the valley, the most buffaloes Hellon said he’d seen in weeks. He pointed out two distinct groups — a “power herd” and a smaller, satellite herd — making their way slowly in the same direction, as if drawn together by an invisible force. The animals paid us no mind as they lumbered past, and I had an atavistic sense of witnessing an ancient behavior, something powerful enough to have endured for millennia.
I didn’t know where to point my camera: at the fuzzy, russet-coated calves lounging in the grass; the impossibly huge males passing within arm’s length, shiny hindquarter muscles flexing; or the two suitors butting heads in the distance. It was also noisy: Mothers were constantly grunting to keep their calves close, and a nearby male suddenly roared like a lion, “letting everybody around him know that that is his female,” according to Hellon. I was surprised to learn, though, that females rule the herds, while males stay in bachelor groups most of the year.
Heavy clouds had gathered on the horizon, and Hellon decided that we should high-tail it home. We’d been driving just five minutes when the sky opened up, the raindrops pelting us like bullets through the open windows. After what seemed like an interminable drive, Hellon dropped Amanda and me off at our wonderfully dry lodge. We scrapped our plans to go into Custer (the town) for dinner and ate at the lodge restaurant, where Amanda ordered a buffalo burger without a twinge of guilt.
Two mornings later, I dragged myself out of bed before 7 to drive the Wildlife Loop alone. I cruised along, the only car on the road, windows down and breathing the lovely vanilla scent of ponderosa pine. Birds flitted by in bursts of gold and powder blue, and chubby prairie dogs stood sentry over their roadside colonies. A mother pronghorn and her string of triplets crossed the road right in front of my car.
Before long I encountered the park’s pesky herd of feral burros, whose ancestors carried visitors to the top of a nearby mountain in the 1920s. Since they’re not technically considered wildlife, people can feed them — and they know it. Almost immediately, a mother and her rabbit-eared baby sauntered over to my car, and Mom rubbed her face hard against the side-view mirror. Uneasily I recalled the wild-and-woolly story that Mat Dunbar had told me the night before.
Dunbar, who works the front desk at the lodge, was driving the Wildlife Loop in May when a female buffalo essentially took his car hostage, using it as a giant scratching post and licking his windows, coating them with a sticky film. She’d also rested her enormous head on his hood, leaving a dent that the insurance company considered an act of God.
I quickly left the burros behind.
Now at the end of my drive, I was feeling disappointed at not having seen more buffaloes when something caught my eye through a break in the trees. Ever so briefly, I glimpsed a group of about 10 buffaloes galloping full speed through a meadow, the sunlight turning their backs reddish gold. Maybe because the scene was so fleeting, I felt suddenly thrown back in time to an era when there were no roads or cars or Jeep safaris — when this was simply a place where the buffalo roam.
Dell’Amore is a freelance writer in Washington.