Lonely Planet Writer

Now is the best time to spot adorable bison calves in South Dakota

Custer State Park’s first bison calves of 2017 were born. Video of the tiny ungulates shows them exploring the prairie with the rest of the herd.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 19: American Bison (Bison bison) with calf, Black Hills, Custer State Park, South Dakota, United States of America. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
American Bison with calf, Black Hills, Custer State Park, South Dakota, United States of America. Image by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Around 300 are born at the park every year between mid-April and mid-March. Adult bison can reach 2000 lbs and they rely on a hefty diet of grass and shrubbery. There are around 1450 head of plains bison currently in the park.

Lydia Austin, Interpretive Programs Manager at Custer State Park, says that the herd doesn’t need much management from the park. “Unlike cattle, bison are very self-sufficient and the park does not aid in birth or the raising of the calves.”

 

Historically essential to the lives to the Lakota, a Native American tribe that occupied the area of what is now North and South Dakota, bison were used in virtually every part of Lakota life, including food, shelter and clothing.

The existence of bison in North America is a success story of ecological conservation. In the 16th century, there were an estimated 25-30 million bison in North America. Throughout the 19th century, overhunting and habitat loss led to the near extinction of American bison. By the 1880s there were just over 1000 bison left in the US.

Bison were raised in small private herds and then reintroduced into the American West, including Custer State Park. “The bison at Custer State Park were introduced in 1914,” according to Austin. “Thirty-six bison were purchased from the Scotty Phillips ranch.”

Today there are around 500,000 bison in public and private herds in the US. “With the establishment of conservation herds,” Austin says, “it has become more common for bison to be born in the wild. The birth of a bison is a special event as it symbolizes the continuation of the species that was once endangered.”

The Custer State Park herd is free roaming, but Austin says the best place to see them is at the southern end of the park along the Wildlife Loop Road. This September, the park will hold the Annual Buffalo Roundup, where the herd of about 1300 is rounded up for vaccinations and auction.

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