South Dakota's Custer State Park is one of America's largest and most popular
state parks, attracting over a million visitors each year. Located where the
grasslands of the Great Plains meet the mountainous region of the Black Hills,
the park offers a diverse ecosystem rich in wildlife. But most people come to
see the park's famous buffalo herd in its natural setting.
The park does not offer a wilderness experience but rather well-managed
outdoor recreation with beautiful scenery and easy-to-observe wildlife.
It's ideal for families, older people, and those who aren't hard core
outdoorspeople. For example, to observe bighorn sheep by the road, all you
have to do is get up early enough (photo, right).
There are numerous well-kept campgrounds, four western-style lodges,
spectacular scenic drives, well-stocked and beautiful fishing lakes,
even a playhouse, not to mention events ranging from an annual arts
festival to the annual buffalo roundup!
However it's safe to say that the buffalo are the stars of the show here. The park's
road system is designed to pass through most of the grasslands so the rangers can direct
you to where the bulk of the herd is grazing at any given time. But the buffalo
can be anywhere such as on the road (right) in which case you wait for them to leave,
or even among the tourist cabins (left). You are advised not to get too
close as they can get ornery.
While the buffalo herd lives in a natural setting, these animals are not wild
in the sense that a deer or elk might be. In fact, the herd is heavily managed
in terms of health maintenance, nutrition, breeding, and herd size. The animals
are regularly immunized and tested for disease. To encourage calving, nutritional
supplements are provided.
The park's grasslands can support a herd of about one thousand buffalo. Each year
there are three sales to remove the park's surplus animals. This program has helped
start many new herds throughout the United States and Canada. Of course, some of
the surplus ends up as meat for human consumption. You can buy "genuine Custer
State Park" buffalo burger patties at the grocery stores in the park. Actually,
buffalo meat is much leaner than beef and supposedly healthier. I had tried buffalo
burgers once, and found them to be quite tasty.
The main point of the surplus sales is that the revenues help support the park,
providing over 25% of the park's budget. A small guided hunt is offered during the
winter. Ten tags are issued at the cost of $4,000 per application!
Besides the buffalo, many other kinds of wildlife may be observed at Custer
State Park. We observed buffalo, big horn sheep (top of page), prongorn (left),
deer, a coyote, lots of prairie dogs, and a small group of mountain goats
just outside the park, near Mount Rushmore.