Herd of Buffalo in Custer State Park in South Dakota.
Getty Images, dosecreative

South Dakota Bison May Be Key to Saving the Entire U.S. Population

From a herd of 36 to more than 1,500, Custer State Park's herd is leading a bison boom.

Every year, cowboys and riders from across South Dakota join the Custer State Park bison roundup. Though the event looks a bit like an old-time re-enactment, the Custer herd has proved to be extremely important to the future of the American bison.

In fact, with the help of its annual roundup—which helps to protect the herd's overall health and, in turn, assists in growing bison populations throughout the country—the herd has increased from its nadir of 36 bison in 1914 to an all-time high of more than 1,500. Now, it's the largest publicly owned herd in the country. This year, Gov. Kristi Noem and other state officials joined the group of about 50 riders, and park visitors watched the event unfold.

"How many times can you get this close to a buffalo herd?" said South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Secretary Kevin Robling to The Buffalo News. "You hear the grunts and the moans and (see) the calves coming and running alongside mamas."

This year, over 1,500 bison were rounded up and checked, and around 4oo young were vaccinated. The herd is important as a seeding ground for bison across America's parks; every year, some animals are sold and shipped to their new herds across the country.

It's the continuation of an incredible recovery story. The United States was once home to over 60 million bison, which were a vital part of the plains ecosystem as well as Native American culture and survival. But overhunting—wanton slaughter, really—cut those numbers down to fewer than 500 wild bison by the 1880s.

"Now, after more than a century of conservation efforts, there are more than 500,000 bison in the United States," Noem said. "The Custer State Park bison herd has contributed greatly to those efforts."

According to the state's ecologist, the park can sustain 1,000 bison in winter conditions. The extra 500 bison will be selected and sold to new homes with other herds throughout the country.

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