Driving through nearby Wind Cave National Park into Custer State Park for a circuit of its forty mile Wildlife Loop has become a frequent part of our sojourns at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs at the southern reaches of the Black Hills. Both parks have extensive herds of American bison as well as populations of elk, pronghorn, white-tail and mule deer, prairie dogs, marmots, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. Custer has its burros that became “wild” after their usefulness as beasts of burden officially ended, but the visitors offering food don’t have any trouble getting them to eat out of their hands. We bring carrots, although we often see less healthy snacks offered. The burros are not fussy.
This season we also saw a prairie rattlesnake at the edge of a road, but still no cougars, which are numbered among the inhabitants of the parks.
Two years ago Wind Cave obtained a large additional acreage of old homestead tracts, long since merged into ranch pasturelands, but still containing some of the pioneer buildings, and at least one bison jump, used by Native Americans to herd bison to their doom over the edge of a cliff in centuries past, when several captured animals provided food, tools, clothing, fuel, medicine, and shelter for many native peoples. A ranger took a few of us on a preview tour of that locale, and we look forward to the day when it will be open for others to appreciate.
The bison herds here are among the first to be restored after the animals were nearly extinct. People purposefully destroyed these majestic and well-adapted animals by the millions to make way for cattle or just for their own amusement. It makes us wonder about human intelligence and character. We could watch their behaviors for hours. Part of the herd is usually on the move even when most of the bison are resting as they graze over large territories, never depleting their resources.
One magnificent old bull walks across the road and stops both lanes of traffic, then he walks down the middle of the road as cars slowly pass, then he stops one lane of traffic for a full minute, then he moves into the other lane to stop it for another minute. A loud motorcycle tries to pass, sounding like another bull, and he challenges it with the hoof-scraping gesture and his characteristic bellow, then he snorts and turns his back and moves on. He knows what he is doing.
One bison cow nurses her calf until she decides it has had enough. She turns in circles while the calf tries to reach for more. The calf persists until the cow finally lies down and the calf has to go to another cow if he wants more. It tries, but that cow knows what it is doing, and she imitates the first cow’s behavior. Finally the calf has to be satisfied with what it already has.
We looked for the bison herd on our first visit in 1976, but didn’t see any. Now we usually check with the rangers for their last observed location, and head for it, but usually we find them whether we have good information of not. We have learned to be patient in the quest and we are rewarded.