It’s a dreary day in the Black Hills of South Dakota and threatening to rain at any moment, but we’re determined to see Buffalo in Custer State Park! We thought they’d just be hanging out along the roadside somewhere, but that was just wishful thinking! So we went on “safari” to hunt them down.
The park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park, with over 71,000 acres of open range, forests and rolling hills. Room enough to maintain a herd of 1500 Buffalo, lots of deer of various kinds, Big Horn sheep, wild mules and even mountain lions. The mountain lions were not on our must-see list however.
We were here to mainly see the Buffalo. Actually, while they are referred to as Buffalo, even in the park, they are only remotely related to Buffalo, which come from Asia and are more correctly referred to by the park rangers as American Bison. So there are no Buffalo in the park – only Bison. But since they are commonly misnamed by nearly everyone, even signs in the park refer to them as Buffalo. I guess that’s less confusing?
We drove the paved Wild Life Loop, where we thought all the Bison (using the correct term for them) might be and were hurrying along, because it was already near sundown and we hadn’t seen anything remotely like it might be a Bison, even along the distant hillsides.
We did however see and photograph plenty of other wild life in the park, like wild turkeys, White Tail and Mule Deer.
And the colors of Autumn were beginning to appear everywhere. But still no sign of Bison.
The light was seriously beginning to fade as we neared the end of the loop road and we were beginning to lose hope of finding any Bison. And then we saw a bunch of dark shapes on a hillside that looked promising.
I swung my telephoto lens toward them and when they came into focus, I realized we had finally spotted one of the herds! But they were so far away, even my long lens couldn’t make out much detail.
We came to the end of the road to turn for home from the park, when we spotted one of the many unpaved gravel access roads that dissect the park.
Maybe we could get closer after all. These roads are allowed public access, so we decided to try to intercept the herd from behind.
The sun had gone down now and we still couldn’t find the herd again. Then, as we topped a hill we saw them! It was amazing. They were directly in front of us moving across the road to our right. They were so close we could almost touch them from the car.
Inching carefully forward so as not to frighten them and using my telephoto lens out the window, braced against the door frame of the car, I was able to get some clear and dramatic pictures in the near darkness.
As we passed by them they crossed the road again behind us. We were now in the middle of the herd! It was exciting and a little unnerving. I was standing outside with the telephoto across the hood, keeping the Jeep between me and the closest of these enormous animals. One of them stopped to give me the eye and we ended up in a stare-down with each other. He’s the intimidating one with the broken right horn.
When the closest ones started snorting and making impatient Bison noises, we decided we’d gotten all the photos we needed and slowly drove ahead again until we passed them by and then made our way out of the park in total darkness.
It was a great day at Custer State Park, where we walked among the Bison!