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aug1homespunweb.jpgBy Allen Holder

RISMEDIA, August 1, 2008-(MCT)-Custer State Park, a 71,000-acre gem in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is a wildlife lover’s paradise, to be sure. Around every bend, something unexpected. Here are a few lessons to make the most of your experience at the park.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t tailgate.

If the driver ahead of you hits the brakes or suddenly pulls over and parks on the shoulder, he probably has seen something that you’ll want to see, too. A pronghorn maybe. A wild burro and her colt, perhaps. A buffalo wallowing in the dirt.

I was driving toward a visitor center on a fine June afternoon, anticipating a hike, when I saw a tour bus parked on the highway, along with a couple of cars. I pulled over and got out.

A few yards away a half dozen or so bighorn sheep had ambled down the mountainside and were wandering among the pine trees, ignoring the clicking of camera shutters. Two buff-colored rams lay in the high grass, as if they were posing.

I pulled out my camera and focused, tempted to get just a few feet closer.

Which leads us to Lesson No. 2: Respect the buffalo.

“Excuse me, you need to go back the other way. EXCUSE ME!” park naturalist Lydia Poppen yelled out to a small group of park visitors. They were inching closer and closer to one of the shaggy beasts that apparently had decided to spend the afternoon lolling among cabins near the State Game Lodge.

“You need to get away from the buffalo now!” Poppen called again. But one stubborn man remained. He took another step toward the animal, focused his camera and clicked. Fortunately the buffalo couldn’t have cared less.

Buffalo are the star attraction at Custer State Park, but they’re no joke. They’re huge-2,000 pounds or more at adulthood-surprisingly agile and, when they want to be, fast. A buffalo can run 35 miles an hour. Bet you can’t.

They also seem to be everywhere-grazing in the rolling hillsides along the Wildlife Loop Road, meandering along and sometimes in the roads, camped out near the campgrounds. The state park counts about 1,300 buffalo in its herd this year.

I was hoping to see every one of them.

Bison Bonanza

It was a wet spring in the Black Hills, a cause of celebration in this part of South Dakota, which has endured several years of drought. In fact, the biggest topic of conversation in June seemed to be whether the drought was truly over. Yes, said some. Maybe, others said, noting that without continued rainfall the region might easily return to dry conditions.

Inarguably the rolling hills of Custer State Park were an iridescent green-and a bonanza for the buffalo.

“The animals don’t really know what to do with all this tall grass,” said Kathy Funk, a driver for the park’s Buffalo Safari Jeep Rides. “But the babies really don’t know anything different.”

Funk’s soft-topped Jeep Wagoneer, loaded with five passengers, had just rounded the first corner of the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road early one morning when we spotted about eight pronghorns, a distant relative of the antelope, leaping through the meadows.

But where were the buffalo? Not far way.

You don’t need a guided tour to find wildlife at Custer, but the Jeep tour drivers keep in radio contact with one another and usually know which roads to take-and sometimes which roads to leave-for the best sightings.

We headed in pursuit along a gravel road called Oak Draw, then up Lame Johnny Road, named for a cattle rustler and horse thief, when we spotted the her–hundreds of buffalo spread out among the fields, feeding, wading in shallow ponds, rolling in the dirt. And walking. Always walking.

Buffalo don’t stick in one place for long. They wander and eat, wander and eat. Buffalo can travel about five miles an hour and never stop chewing, Funk said. To help keep track of their whereabouts, the park keeps radio collars on some of the herd.

“Whenever you see a group of buffalo, leading it is a cow,” she said. “It is a matriarchal society. Whenever you see a bull, it usually is at the back, because we all know they will not stop and ask for directions.”

In fact, bulls remain separate from the herd most of the year, Funk said, except during mating season, and the park keeps only a few bulls anyway. An annual buffalo roundup and sale in the fall keeps the herd’s numbers manageable.

Funk wasn’t quite satisfied that we had found the best vantage point for buffalo viewing, so she took a sharp turn off the road and headed up a steep, rocky hill toward a place called Gobbler’s Knob.

“This is what we call our movie set,” she said, pointing out the panoramic view that has been included in such Westerns as “How the West Was Won” and “A Man Called Horse.”

But the buffalo were no closer, so we jostled back down the hill for a closer look, finally getting close enough to hear a few guttural snorts and see a few babies trailing their mamas.

On Burros’ Time

“We saw a lot of buffalo,” said 11-year-old Matt Allinder of Lenexa, who was visiting the park with his parents, Cheryl and Tom Allinder, and his 9-year-old brother, Zach. The family had just finished a Jeep tour.

“We saw a lot of burros, too. We got to pet a couple, too,” said Matt, clearly excited about his close encounter with wildlife.

“There was a whole herd crossing the road when we got to the park,” Cheryl Allinder said. “We all just dropped our jaws.”

If the buffalo seem impervious to visitors, walking in front of cars and blocking traffic when the mood seems to suit them, the burros seem almost enchanted by the attention.

I was making a second loop on the wildlife road one afternoon and turned when I saw several cars on a side road. Some were parked, others merely blocked by a small herd of tiny, wild burros in the road.

One couple led their two small children out into the meadow for a closer look. Holding his daughter, the father tried to entice one brown animal with a carrot. Nothing doing.

Some of the other animals were more brazen, eagerly nibbling apples from hands or even peering into car windows, looking for a snack or a scratch on the nose.

Like the buffalo, the wild burros have become a signature attraction at Custer. They’re not native to the Black Hills, but they’ve been in the park for years, descendants of a herd that once carried visitors to Harney Peak. These days their chief occupation seems to be looking for handouts-technically forbidden, but not enforced.

Neither Rain Nor Hail

From a distance, the thick pine forests do make the Black Hills appear to be almost black, but closer up they’re very green.

Ninety-eight percent of the 58,000 acres of forest land at Custer is made up of ponderosa pines, said Poppen, the interpretive naturalist, who was leading a hike one afternoon up the sometimes-steep Lovers Leap Trail.

“The pines grow very thickly here,” she said, pointing out an area she called a “dog-hair stand” because the young trees were growing as close together as a dog’s hair. You wouldn’t want to attempt a hike through these.

“It’s good habitat for small animals, though,” she said.

Our goal on this three-hour, three-mile hike was the Lovers Leap, named for an American Indian tale about two young lovers from different tribes. Their families weren’t happy about their budding romance, and the couple ran away from them, eventually leaping to their deaths rather than be caught and separated.

From the Lovers Leap bluff, we could see across the park to the Needles Highway, a sharply curving road that climbs through some imposing granite formations. That’s where I wanted to be, but it looked like a storm was moving in. I decided to tackle it another time, but it didn’t matter. It was raining then, too.

On the park’s north side, the Needles Highway is a completely different environment for the park. The gentle hills and meadows in the south, along the Wildlife Loop, are replaced with steeper, rocky mountains, forested with ponderosa and even limber pine trees.

My goal was the Cathedral Spires Trail, a 1½-mile path that leads to some of the park’s best-known granite formations.

The rain began to fall more heavily as I started the ascent on the pine-needle-carpeted trail. Then it started to hail-small, pea-size, but still hail. I had no intentions of becoming a martyr, but I kept on. Besides, it looked like there were plenty of rock formations to duck behind or trees to cower under. The hail stopped.

Good thing, because the payoff was worth dodging a few ice pellets-views from under, behind and among monster-size granite columns that rise almost vertically from the ground, not to mention the vistas beyond.

All of that was still waiting just a few miles farther-the pristine waters of Sylvan Lake, the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore.

But that could wait. First, I needed to look for a few more buffalo.

© 2008, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.