How to have a Wild West adventure from the comfort of your own home.

By Stacey Leasca
Updated September 25, 2020

The rumbling begins at your feet. It creeps up your legs until your knees are quaking. It quickly turns into a thunder you can feel in your chest until finally, you see the cause: thousands of buffalo stampeding toward you only paired with the howls of modern-day cowboys and cowgirls herding them through the open plains of South Dakota. This magnificent sensory overload is known as the Buffalo Roundup. And it’s a sight and feeling you can experience right from home this year.

For the last 54 years, America’s greatest wranglers have come together to assist in the roundup of one of the largest publicly-owned buffalo herds in the world. Now numbering somewhere around 1,300 head, moving the Custer State Park herd is a mighty feat, but one easily handled by the volunteer horsemen who come from miles just to volunteer to be in the event year after year.

It’s also a sight thousands of spectators typically come out to see as well. However, this year, due to the pandemic, attending the event in person may not be possible. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t take part. This year’s 55th annual roundup will be streamed across the globe so everyone can enjoy the spectacle on their own couch. Need convincing to tune in? Let me share with you what the event looks like from a buffalos eye view.

Herding Buffalo in South Dakota
Credit: Stacey Leasca

In 2019, I was invited to take part in the famed roundup from the bed of a pickup truck.  I watched as the teams of riders left their stalls and split off, working in concert, coaxing the buffalo over the hillsides, through the trees, and over the rivers that cover South Dakota’s largest state park. Every once in a thrilling while, a buffalo would break loose from the pack. Without missing a beat, a rider clad in a cowboy hat and leather chaps would be off, racing against the animal, riding in a graceful gallop alongside the 2,000-pound beast, until it finally rejoined the herd.

Not only is this work fun to watch — even virtually — but it serves a purpose too.

Each year, the buffalo living within the 71,000-acre park are rounded up for veterinary care, for the newborn calves to be branded, and for some to be sorted and sold at auction. This, the park explained, is to “maintain a healthy balance between the number of bison and the available rangeland forage. The park can only sustain a certain number of bison, based on the condition of the grassland and how much food is available.”

But, this event is much more than a bit of animal husbandry. Those watching both locally and at home get to also catch a glimpse of a bygone Wild West era that still magically exists in this small corner of America. They can come to see people like Bob Lantis, an 85-year-old rider who’s been with the roundup since its very inception, ride alongside his daughter Molly, whose own children now participate in the roundup from time to time too.

Herding Buffalo in South Dakota
Credit: Stacey Leasca

“My senior year of high school was the year I convinced [my father] that I was old enough to take care of myself, and I got to go,” Molly shared at the 54th annual roundup. “It was an absolute blast.” Since then, she said, she’s missed the roundup only twice — once while in college, and the other as she gave birth to her first child.

It’s an event burrowed deep within her heart and has weaved its way into the very fabric of many family’s lives throughout the American West. The night before the roundup, Molly invited back to what can only be described as the cowboy inner sanctum — French Creek Horse Camp, where the wranglers camp with their horses before the ride.

At the camp, families came together for a BBQ as their horses lingered nearby before settling in around a campfire, singing songs and telling cowboy tales, with Lantis and the other elders at the head of it all, until the embers burned away. Being there felt like spying on a piece of Americana that only lives on in Norman Rockwell paintings. Except once a year, it’s alive and well in South Dakota.

Herding Buffalo in South Dakota
Credit: Stacey Leasca

In the morning, Lantis gathered the group, telling them all to ”check your cinches” and watch out for their own crew on the ride before bowing his head to lead them in prayer. And like they’d all done it a million times before, the group dispersed to get the job done.

After several hours of working the herd, the wranglers rounded their last corner and were met with the thunderous applause of thousands of spectators who came and waited for this very sight. The onlookers’ cheers were almost as loud as the buffalo themselves as they made their final transition into their temporary corral to be treated, branded, and sorted. It’s a sight well worth seeing with your own two eyes one day. For now, it’s best to stay home and watch the drama of it all surrounded by your own family. Tune in on Friday, Sept. 25, at 11:30 am EST to the video above to experience the thrill of it all, and to hopefully spark your wanderlust for next year to see it for yourself.