Written by btwood2 on 20 Oct, 2004
We’d barely entered the park on Iron Mountain Road when we saw about 10 or 12 burros poking around cars parked on the shoulder, and people, some inside their cars, some walking around. What were they doing? We pulled over and watched.…Read More
We’d barely entered the park on Iron Mountain Road when we saw about 10 or 12 burros poking around cars parked on the shoulder, and people, some inside their cars, some walking around. What were they doing? We pulled over and watched. The burros were quite obviously requesting food in no uncertain burro-body language, some thrusting their snouts right into the car windows as if to see and sniff for themselves. And many of the people were digging around in their car’s food supply and giving the burros whatever they came up with. In one case this was a head of lettuce, which is probably ok. But several others were getting chitos and chips – not the most nutritious food for people or burros. We were impressed with how gentle these fairly large, well-muscled, hooved creatures were, but had no desire to "feed" them, even if we would have had something in the car with which to do so. Something about the whole scene was faintly disturbing. At the other side of the park, on Wildlife Loop Road, we ran into a replay of this scene, not just on the shoulder, but extending into a large, open field. Again, we stopped, watched, and took photos. The burros looked healthy with shiny coats, and some of the females were quite obviously pregnant.
I was curious about this, so later looked for more specifics in Tatanka magazine, given to us at the entrance station. A "Please don’t FEED US" column announced that feeding any of the park’s wildlife is strictly prohibited. But these burros didn’t seem very wild, and no one was around to enforce this prohibition. I recalled a few miles before the park entrance a store was advertising "burro food". Burro food? I determined to ask a ranger. At the wildlife station, the ranger on duty informed me that the burros aren’t indigenous to the area, but were introduced in the 1920’s by an entrepreneur who used them to carry tourists up Mt. Harney. When his venture failed in the 1930’s, he let the burros loose. Currently there are two small herds, about 15-20 burros in each. Park policy is not to feed them, but "if you must, give them something healthy, like carrots, apples, lettuce, or other raw vegetables." Although the burros behave in an extraordinarily gentle manner, considering their size, they do occasionally kick with their hind legs, and sometimes will nip a tourist. The herds are kept within manageable size by selling some every year during the bison auction.
According to the American Donkey and Mule Society, ass is the correct term for the animals we more often call donkeys or burros. Ass comes from the Latin asinus, not from the old English arse, a crude term for the human rear end. Male donkeys are called jacks, females jennets. The Western U.S. tends to call asses burros, from Spanish, whereas the East calls them donkeys. Mules are the sterile hybrids that result from breeding a jack to a female horse. The less common hinny, also sterile, is produced by the breeding of a male horse to a jennet.
Christopher Columbus had four jacks and two jennies brought to the New World 3 years after he first landed on its shores. They soon multiplied and also were used to produce mules, which along with burros were used extensively out West for mining. As mining ventures and other projects failed, the animals were often let loose and wild herds grew.
In 1971, the The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed to prevent abuse and attempt some management of these roaming herds in the ever-increasingly populated and shrinking West. At the time of passage of this law, herds of wild horses and burros were estimated at 17,000; by 1993 their census was up to 46,500. Excess animals are removed from the herds and adopted out privately. Because of horse and burro fertility levels and subsequent increases in their populations, the Bureau of Land Management, on whose lands they mostly roam, is conducting studies on temporary anti-fertility methods for the herds.
Last year we visited both the National Bison Range in Montana as well as Yellowstone National Park. We were disappointed in the former, only seeing bison way off in the distance so they looked like dark specks on the hillsides. Yellowstone was much…Read More
Last year we visited both the National Bison Range in Montana as well as Yellowstone National Park. We were disappointed in the former, only seeing bison way off in the distance so they looked like dark specks on the hillsides. Yellowstone was much better for bison spotting, with frequent sightings and bison jams. With Custer State Park’s bison numbering around 1500, this was the largest concentration of bison/ per square mile we’d yet visited. I was greatly anticipating viewing these magnificent animals during their "rut", their mating time, which runs from July through August. We hadn’t been driving the Wildlife Loop long when we came across a huge herd, maybe between 250-300 bison, with a string of cars and motorcycles stopped on the shoulder alongside. The bison were right by the roadside in a big open field, some crossing back and forth across the road. This was apparently a favorite wallow area for them, as very often a huge shaggy beast would flip right over with dust flying and feet kicking, taking pleasure in a dirt backscratch.
Standing by our car, I soon became aware of an undercurrent of sounds – something between a cat’s purr and pigeon’s coo. Low and rumbling, but with some vocalization as well, the voice of the herd. Calves were sticking close to their mamas, and now and then nursing. Bulls were doing their own thing, avoiding one another, but showing strong interest in the cows. Following, sniffing and nuzzling the cows, the larger bulls with massive heads incongruously gentle as the purring, cooing rumbling sounds continued. Sometimes a bull would sniff, dog-like, at a cow’s rear. We didn’t see many overtly aggressive moves on the part of the bulls, neither with the cows nor between one another. One particularly large bull began to chase off another one when he was getting too close to his cow, but they didn’t openly clash. We spent a good half hour there, looking and taking pictures, and I was sorry to leave. I felt like I could have watched them the entire remainder of the day in perfect contentment, with those lulling throaty sounds of the herd washing over me.
I was surprised at the lack of aggressive behavior, for I’d imagined we might witness some fighting between the bulls, at least some stamping the ground and bellowing, which reportedly sounds like the roar of a lion, so loud it can carry for 3 miles. Signs of impending conflict include loud grunting, hissing, spitting, head waving, tail raising, stiff-legged walking around one another, and eye rolling and staring. But this herd was relatively sedate as we watched. A ranger I spoke with later said there had been more aggressive displays at the beginning of the rut, but by the second month (August) the bulls were getting worn out.
Bison females calve every other year in their prime. For most of the year, they hang out in matriarchal herds with their calves and yearlings. The bison bulls remain solitary or roam in small groups, with other bulls. But during the rut, the bulls are looking for love, and find it, or rejection, or a fight – in the mixed herd. Bulls butting heads (and getting butted in other parts of their bodies) can lead to injury and sometimes even death. People watching bison at any time need to remember that these seemingly slow and gentle animals are anything but; they are wild and agile, can pivot on a dime, and can quickly gain speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. They can also jump, kick, and swim.
At its historical apex, the bison population has been estimated to number 60 million, ranging over most of what is now the United States, and well into Canada and Mexico. Pioneer settlement in the 1800’s decimated the last of the great herds by wanton and senseless killing of these beautiful beasts. By 1889 only about 1100 bison remained on the entire North American continent. As I’d learned on my visit to Crazy Horse Memorial, the Dupuis family, Indian (Minneconjou) ranchers north of the Cheyenne River, had captured 9 pure bison calves in 1883 and from them started a herd. This herd was later bought by Scotty Phillips of Fort Pierre, and continued to thrive. Around 40 animals from this herd started the Custer State Park herd in 1913. Today, an estimated 250,000 bison live in North America and are no longer considered endangered, but they came very close to extinction just over 100 years ago.
Custer State Park’s herd is actively managed, with an annual Buffalo Roundup in October. Here, the calves are branded and immunized; two-year old bulls are semen-tested, and sale animals tested for brucellosis, TB and the sale cows for pregnancy. The excess bison are auctioned off on the 3rd Saturday in November each year, to join other herds or become food for us. Thousands of private herds have been started from the Custer herd since the first auction in 1966, and the sales from the auction have contributed up to 25% of the parks income.
Further along the Wildlife Loop, we came across several more herds and groups of bison, but none as large as that first one. By the end of the loop, we weren’t even stopping anymore, although I wouldn’t have minded if we had…
We’d been trying to get to Custer for some time now. The week before, we kept getting stuck at Crazy Horse Memorial. Only 4 miles north of Custer, and just too much to see there. But following our day at Custer…Read More
We’d been trying to get to Custer for some time now. The week before, we kept getting stuck at Crazy Horse Memorial. Only 4 miles north of Custer, and just too much to see there. But following our day at Custer State Park, we finally made it. Main Street was full of motorbikes as it was just days before the impending Sturgis Rally. They were cruising as well as parked on the sides of the street and in a roped off area in the middle of the street. Walking along, I grabbed a "Welcome Bikers! 6th Annual Custer Cruisin’" magazine, free for the taking in front of the stores. The City of Custer runs the week-long rally, running roughly the same time as Sturgis. Activities include bike show, bike rodeo, bike ride, live music and street vendors. Custer was hoping to top last year’s attendance of 10,000 a day. A lower key more off the beaten path Sturgis.
Historic buildings, most going business ventures, line Main Street. Custer was named for General George Armstrong Custer, who took it upon himself to lead a U.S. government expedition to explore the surrounding Paha Sapa (Black Hills), purportedly for mapping the area. The summer expedition, lasting 60 days, covered 880 miles. Well over 1000 troopers, civilians, scientists, and Indian scouts, and even a 16-piece band accompanied him.
Of the two civilian miners with Custer’s expedition, it was Horatio Nelson Ross who discovered gold in the Custer area. Once the word got out, the Black Hills gold rush was on. In violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the U.S. Congress passed a special act that opened the Black Hills for white settlement three years after Ross’ discovery. Many gold seekers hadn’t bothered to wait, however, since it was difficult and probably not a priority for the Cavalry to keep gold seekers and settlers out of the Black Hills.
Currently, Custer’s proximity to the state park and countless tourist attractions make it a hub for tourism. Lots of activities take place from April through September, both in the town and in the park. There’s no shortage of accommodations, both private and public. Another attraction just west of Custer is Flintstones Bedrock City and Theme Park for the kids. You can also camp there and fill up on Brontoburgers and Dino Dogs. We would have like to see the National Museum of Woodcarving, also west of Custer on Highway 16W. The museum, open from May through October, features the work of 70 carvers, including an original Disneyland animator. Like we always say, "next time…"