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The bison of the Great Plains

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In the fifteenth century, the Great Plains were roamed by one hundred million shaggy, short-sighted American bison (popularly known as buffalo, a corruption of the French boeuf). Apart from eating bison’s flesh, Native Americans used the animals’ fur and hide for clothing and shelter; their bones for weapons, utensils and toys; and even their droppings for fuel. The US Army and the flood of ensuing settlers correctly figured that eliminating the bison en masse was a mercilessly effective way to deplete the Native Americans as well; by 1900, there were fewer than one thousand of the short-horned beasts left in North America.

Custer State Park was instrumental in helping to raise that meagre number to a current head count in the hundreds of thousands in the US and Canada. The park’s own 1200 bison constitute the country’s second largest publicly owned herd, surpassed only by Yellowstone National Park. However, over ninety percent of bison in the US are now privately owned – the meat, higher in protein and lower in cholesterol than either chicken or tuna, has become a regular item on restaurant menus throughout the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, and is something between novelty and delicacy in other parts of the US and Canada.

The Custer State Park bison are free to roam where they please until either the last Monday of September or the first Monday in October, when the park stages its annual roundup. From selected viewing points, you can watch one of the region’s most thrilling events, as helicopters, ground vehicles and horseback riders steer the often recalcitrant herds down a six-mile “corridor” and into a series of pens. There the calves are branded and vaccinated, with the whole lot sorted to determine which five hundred will be auctioned off on the third Saturday in November. Proceeds from this sale account for twenty percent of the park’s annual revenue.

Don’t let the tranquil, easy-going appearance of North America’s largest mammal lull you into a false sense of security – these are famously unpredictable animals. An average bison can stand over 6ft-high at the hump, weigh more than a ton, outrun a horse, turn on a dime and gore a human most efficiently.

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