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Sunday, September 10, 2017

OF BISON, ANTELOPE, AND PRAIRIE DOGS IN CUSTER STATE PARK, SD

Getting around the huge Custer State Park,
several hours and still just a portion
of the 71,000 acres.


We saw bison at the Custer State Park Visitor Center, but it’s out on the prairie where the buffalo roam, and breathtaking as our introduction to bison was, the following morning’s Jeep Safari surpasses it. 

Bison own the park, wander freely, and when they want to move, we visitors stop.  It gives us a real opportunity to get to know them better. 

Bison are the largest mammals in North America, some about six feet tall and weighing upwards of 2,000 pounds.  When you’re close to them out in the open, you finally get a sense of that gigantic size.

For all their bulk and the hump on their backs, bison can get right down and wallow in the dirt, although the hump prevents them from rolling over.  Dust clouds rise from their bodies.  We saw this out on the prairie.


They’re big and furry black and brown, the fur often matted into patches over their sides, the result of wallowing to rid themselves of insects and other pests.  Some look like patchwork quilts.  Along the roads, if there are trees, you can see where they rub against trees too.  Bark is rubbed away.

Their split hooves are very sharp, cutting into the prairie soil and aerating it, helping it grow.  All part of the environmental stability of the prairie.


Most impressive are their massive heads, dark and full of fur.  Their expression might seem impassive and their deep-set eyes calm and somewhat sad, but if they suspect aggression, watch out!  Tempers flare quickly, and the bison can move at more than 35 miles per hour!  



Imagine the stampede of about 1,300 animals as it happens each year.  Two thousand pound animals, thundering across the prairie, hammering the earth as cowboys round them up as part of the park management program—to be counted, some tagged, and some studied.  This year it will be on Friday, Sept. 29th, so if you are available…. What a sight that must be.

We saw no stampede on our Buffalo Safari.  For us, the bison strut their stuff and take their sweet time. When they wish to cross the road, traffic stops and people gawk—and wait until they’ve gone to the other side.

The prairie, itself, is beautiful.  Average rainfall is only 20 or so inches, so the deciduous trees are close to streams.  On the hillier sections are evergreens.  All in all, not too many trees in total.  Not too much green. That accounts in a large part for the openness and the waving grasses.  Shades of yellows and browns predominate with interspersed trees.  Movies and photos cannot really capture the wide expanses.  Seeing is appreciating in a new way.


Bison, open spaces, a different kind of beauty to us from the east.  But one that is so easy to appreciate.  Our drive through the park introduced us to some of the other wildlife as well. 

Another jeep far across the open prairie.  So different to an Easterner
like me.

Custer State Park is also home to the beautiful pronghorn antelope.  We’ve already seen the biggest mammal in North America; the pronghorn is the fastest.  It can run 60 mph for long distances, enabling it to escape predators.  At two days old, it can outrun a man; at four days, it can outsprint a horse.  How speedy is that!!! 


The pronghorn antelope is graceful and beautiful, and several obliged us by coming quite close.  Gorgeous soft brown in color with a brown and white striped neck and a white rear.  Almost regal demeanor.  They’re agile and quick, but they allow us to get quite close.  It’s thrilling.



Thrilling is good, but the cutest critters we saw were acres and acres of prairie dogs popping in and out of the burrows in their cities on the plains.  It’s quite an experience to see them pop up, very curious, to gaze at the passing parade, staying very close to the doorways of their underground mazes.  On the prairie, their communities stretch as far as I could see and continued until the terrain changed.


One more highlight in a day of thrills and cuteness that was far from over.  Next up—Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.







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