Custer State Park, SD… Where the Buffalo Are Bison and the Donkeys Are, uh, Donkey-ish.

We got to spend a lot of ‘up-close’ time with buffalo and donkeys at Custer State Park in Western South Dakota. We didn’t have a choice. They blocked the road.

I’m sure you have noticed. Peggy and I have been alternating our Monday posts between our US travel and overseas travel. The US posts tend to focus on nature while our overseas posts usually focus on culture and history. These are only guidelines, however, as Captain Jack Sparrow might note, not hard and fast rules. Today’s post is on the buffalo and donkeys of Custer State Park in western South Dakota. Next Monday we will visit the Black Forest of Germany. All photos in today’s post are taken by either Peggy or me.

Photo of Buffalo in Custer State Park, SD by Peggy Mekemson.
These buffalo, lazing about on a hill in Custer State Park, actually aren’t buffalo. They are bison, or Bison, bison, bison, according to their taxonomic classification. If you want to find true buffalo outside of zoos, you will need to go to Africa or Asia. Actually, these guys could care less what you call them. I’ll stick with buffalo, which is what the first European, a French trapper, thought they were when he came across them in the 1600s.

Western South Dakota is truly worth visiting. Peggy and I checked out Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and the Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research with its great collection of dinosaur bones on our trip through there last fall. We also slipped a few miles across the border into Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower. We’ve already done posts on the Badlands and Devil’s Tower. Including today, we have six more posts on the area, which reflects how interesting we found it.

Photo of buffalo on the move at Custer State Park by Curt Mekemson.
Buffalo on the move. Here we have a mom and calf.
Photo of cow buffalo blocking traffic in Custer State Park by photographer Curt Mekemson.
They were moving across the road, and blocking traffic, much to the delight of visitors.
Photo of family of buffalo blocking traffic in Custer St. Park SD by photographer Curt Mekemson.
It was a family affair…
Photo of buffalo passing in from of a Ford F-150 pickup by photographer Peggy Mekemson.
Our large F-150 Ford pickup didn’t look so big when one crossed inches in front of us.
Buffalo family photo in Custer State Park by photographer Curt Mekemson.
And why did the buffalo cross the road? To get to the other side, of course. Grin.
And join their herd. There were a bunch. But imagine these numbers being in the millions, which is what you might have seen in the early 1800s. By 1900 their numbers had dropped to around 500 and they were close to extinction, wiped out by settlers and hunters from the East for their hides and for fun, and because of a US army policy that wanted them eliminated to destroy the primary food source of American Indians, in one of the darker moments in American history. Massive land grabs followed that led to the elimination of the buffalo’s traditional grazing patterns, which was an equal if not greater factor in their brush with extinction.
Photo of buffalo and calf in Custer State Park, SD by photographer Peggy Mekemson.
Fortunately, a few ranchers became deeply concerned about their extinction in the early 1900s and did what they could to save the buffalo. It’s an effort that continues today with a number of interested parties participating— ranging from the government, to Native Americans, to environmentalists, to ranchers, etc. The buffalo now number in the thousands and are no longer seen as an endangered species.
Photo of buffalo looking irritated by photographer Peggy Mekemson.
The tourist potential of the buffalo has certainly been recognized and exploited. It comes with a caveat, however: Keep your distance. While buffalo aren’t particularly aggressive around people, they are wild animals. If you get too close and a buffalo feels threatened, it may charge. Every year or so, tourists ignore the rule and end up getting gored or otherwise injured. This guy’s stance and swishing tail suggest that you shouldn’t mess with him. In other words…
Photo of Bull Buffalo at Wind Cave National Park by photographer Curt Mekemson.
I’ll conclude with this magnificent bull buffalo we found in Wind Cave National Park, which actually abuts Custer State Park on the south. A bull can weigh up to 2800 pounds and run 35 miles an hour. Irritating him is a definite no-no.

Would you like to have your own buffalo? How big is your backyard? I’m serious. The annual buffalo roundup was taking place at Custer State Park while we were there. The maximum number of buffalo the park can hold is limited to around 1500 given how much land the animals need for grazing. All of them, except the large bulls, are rounded up and herded into corrals where they are sorted according to sex, size, age, health, etc. Enough are then sold off to keep the herd healthy. You can buy one. Bring your truck. The whole roundup is a big deal. Cowboys from all over the West (and probably beyond) volunteer to help. But first, they have to apply and prove they have the necessary skills. There’s a long waiting list. We were going to go until I learned that some 20,000 people would be there. We’d have to show up three hours early and could be expected to be stuck in traffic for at least an hour afterward. We watched the video instead.

This brings us to the donkeys. I like them. Next to dogs and cats, they are my favorite domesticated animal. We even have one. He travels with us…

Eeyore, looking out the window in awe of the wild donkeys.

The past 12 months of our travel could have been called the Year of the Donkey. They were everywhere it seemed— certainly in the remote lands of the West where they roam wild. Theirs ancestors served as pack animals for hopeful gold miners. We also saw lots of them in Egypt where they have worked for thousands of years pulling carts, serving as pack animals, and even providing transportation. They still do. We even discovered one in Germany’s Black Forest, as you will see in next Monday’s post.

They were waiting for us in Custer State Park, They knew where the tourists would be stopping to let the buffalo pass. But unlike the buffalo, whose intention, I noted, was to get across the road, they held drivers hostage.

Photos of donkeys holding driverhostage in Custer State Park, South Dakota by photographer Peggy Mekemson.
Unlike the buffalo, the donkeys blocked the road purposely— in search of goodies.
Photo of donkeys begging food in Custer State Park by Peggy Mekemson.
Having caught the driver’s attention, they moved in for the kill— or at least a carrot. These donkeys were working together and were probably a bonded couple. All they got was their photo taken.
Photo of young donkey in Oatman, Arizona by Curt Mekemson
Donkeys are known to love carrots, but apparently, young donkeys can choke on them.This cute youngster that Peggy and I found in Oatman, Arizona, had a “no carrot” sticker in its nose, much to its disgust.
Photo of donkey with head in car by Photographer Curt Mekemson.
Our two rogues had better luck with the next vehicle they stopped.
Photo of two donkeys with both their heads sticking in a driver's side window by photographer Curt Mekemson.
And, given the circumstances, decided that two heads were better than one.
A different perspective. The age old question of how many donkeys can stick their heads in a driver’s window was answered beyond a doubt. It was carrot time!
Photo of donkey bandit in Custer State Park by Peggy Mekemson.
This fellow stopped by to check us out. “Take your hands off the wheel and hand over your carrots.” We didn’t have any.
Photo of white donkey at Custer State Park by Peggy Mekemson.
This one was our favorite, however. What’s not to love about it with its sway back and whacky look…
Photo of white donkey with bent ears at Custer State Park by photographer Curt Mekemson.
And bent ears. He gave Eeyore the evil eye, thinking he had eaten all of the carrots, which was probably true.

That’s it for today. Next week it’s on to the Black Forest of Germany and the wrap-up for our Rhine cruise.

33 thoughts on “Custer State Park, SD… Where the Buffalo Are Bison and the Donkeys Are, uh, Donkey-ish.

  1. Perhaps if we ever get together in person, I’ll tell you of our very memorable experience with a donkey with a bent ear in Oatman, but it isn’t appropriate for a public blog.
    On the other hand, I can share that we experienced our first “crossing guard” buffalo in the Wichita Nature Preserve and saw another in Custer State Park. But back then, I don’t think the herd was so huge. The roundup must be impressive to see and even more impressive to take part in.

    • We watched buffalo misbehaving in Oatman, Ray. Maybe it was similar to your experience, except the ears weren’t part of the action. 🙂
      You can see videos of the round up. It certainly gives to meaning to the term ‘thundering herd.’

  2. We, too, loved Custer State Park (and the whole state of S. Dakota, too)! We were trapped for about an hour and a half by buffalo going wherever they go at dusk. Fortunately, however, we didn’t have donkeys sticking their heads in our windows. But what a memory!
    Happy, safe travels to you both.

  3. Excellent bison and donkey photos!
    A 2018 paper in ScienceDirect looked at historical documents and scientific papers that suggest unsustainable numbers of bison died primarily from disease, environment changes, habitat degradation, overgrazing and loss of established human management by First Nations. Records suggest hunters killed less than the annual increase.
    Clearly range management today recognizes the lessons from the past – how many bison can the land support.

    • Thanks, it was fun taking the photos.
      No doubt there were a variety of reasons for the buffalos demise. Nature has a way of dealing with over population… except for humans. Grin. But when you see photos of the thousands and thousands of buffalo hides stacked up and the thousands and thousands of miles of barbed wire strung, we all get to share the blame.

  4. I hope you saw the bison dig site in Hot Springs, too. Western Nebraska also has several interesting sights – Agate Springs National Monument, Scottsbluff National Monument, Fort Robinson, Carhenge, the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Research & Visitor Center, the FurTade Museum, and more.

      • I personally like the Agate Springs site because it features viewable in situ both fossils of Miocene mammals and artifacts that were given to James Cook by Red Cloud in thanks for friendship and inviting Rd Cloud and his band to safely stay there during the events that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre, roughly 80 miles/ 129 km away. On the other hand, you hit most of the best of Western SD, all of which I never tire of.

      • The travel area is fairly compact, making a day or two to visit all a possibility. Of course, you would want to return to SD to visit the mammoth dig site in Hot Springs, which has an excellent visitor’s center built over it, and Wind Cave, tough that take a fair amount of time to do.

  5. This post brings back many happy memories of our two visits to the Black Hills and Custer State Park. Back when we were still traveling in our fifth wheel we planned a trip out west around camping in Custer State Park for a few days. Sometimes there were bison just outside our campground. The donkeys were begging for carrots even back in 2011! Thanks for this post!

  6. What a sight to see buffalo crossing the road, Curt! Fabulous pics and I love the two heads are better than one of the donkeys. And your humorous narrative adds to the fun! Thanks for sharing! I don’t know if I’ll get to experience this, so at least through your blog, I have. 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed the tale, Lauren. Thanks. And the way buffalo are being reintroduced to a number of areas, maybe you will get your chance. I was thrilled to see the elk when they were re-introduced to Pt. Reys. And the elephant seals (who reintroduced themselves, I believe) what gorgeous creatures.

  7. Great post, Curt! I love all your bison shots – just beautiful. And thank you for the educational information about herds being slaughtered as part of the U.S. policy of removing Natives’ food source. Those donkeys were too cute to be annoying, and I agree with your choice of the best one of all: that whacky donkey is 100% character. I have not spent much time in the Dakotas and I think I would enjoy the area immensely.

    • I was impressed with the Dakotas far more than I thought I would be, Crystal. There are four more blogs to come!
      As for the ‘white’ donkey, I have a special place in my heart/mind for characters.
      The information about the Army’s policy certainly wasn’t something we were ever taught in school. I wonder if it is now.
      Thanks as always for your fun and thoughtful comments. 🙂

  8. Looks like you got buffaloed (bisoned?) into good press for those four-legged roadblocks. I can only imagine what a herd of thousands would look like thundering my direction…

  9. One of our first family vacations was to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Being Iowans, anything having to do with corn topped our list; I can’t remember even knowing that bison lived in the state. Thank goodness we can grow and learn. Today, one of my cherished souvenirs is the hank of hair a Tallgrass Prairie ranger pulled off an animal for me — from the window of the jeep we were riding through the herd.

    When it comes to bison, the Goodnight connection in the Panhandle is critical. The herd now living on the Caprock is descended from those animals, and in ways I don’t fully understand their genetic line has been used to strengthen herds in different places. So much is owed those folks. Mary Ann Goodnight felt sorry for the orphaned bison calves that hunters left; her willingness to adopt and raise them helped ensure buffalo still roaming around as companions for those playing antelopes (and donkeys!).

    • Thanks for that addition on the Goodnights. I knew that ranchers played a n important part but was unaware of the Goodnight role. The challenge on the genetic front is that cattle and buffalo breed easily. It’s hard to find buffalo without cattle genes.
      I went to the Corn Palace in 1999. I’ve driven by it a few times since. It fits my love of weird.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Cindy. It was certainly fun being there.
      Twins possibly. They certainly looked like each other. Or bonded mates. No one is quite sure what criteria donkeys use in picking out their partners. 🙂

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