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The meeting breaks up to the jingle of spurs and the crunch of gravel under boots. The pickups file through Movie Draw, the setting for the 1956 film The Last Hunt and the bison stampede in 1962's How the West Was Won, and spread out at the far end of the valley. The riders, meanwhile, split into three teams, flushing stragglers from steep ravines and the green ash in the creek bottom. These modern-day cowboys communicate with the pickup drivers by two-way radios. One cowpoke even has a TV network's compact video camera duct-taped to his hat.
As the riders work the flanks of the herd, trucks buck over the rocky ground, pushing the herd down the valley. With their huge heads and high humps, the buffalo look as if they're about to tip forward. Yet they run with astounding speed and agility. "They just kind of float, don't they," says Doug Scott, a pickup driver. Affirming the comment, a running bull effortlessly pirouettes 360 degrees while keeping pace with the racing herd.
Thundering through a narrow pass toward the corrals, the 1,500 bison present a picture of the 19th century, when the animals, according to a zoologist of the time, were as plentiful as "fish in the sea," and a frontiersman reported traveling for three days against a river of bison that stretched to the horizon in all directions. But farmers shot the animals to save their fences, soldiers destroyed them to starve hostile Plains Indians, market hunters killed them for their meat and hides, and sportsmen shot them by the thousands for fun. By the turn of the century, as few as 1,000 remained.
Since then buffalo have come back from the brink of extinction. Today about 150,000 roam North America's grasslands. Public herds number about 17,000, and most of the others graze on private ranches, where landowners are discovering that wildlife conservation and profits can go hand in hand. Long adapted to the harsh climate and coarse grass of the Great Plains, the buffalo need little care. Yet prices for their meat and for breeding animals are twice as high as those for cattle.
The Custer herd lopes into the creek bottom near the last corral, followed by a storm of riders, trucks and dust. In the shelter of the cottonwoods, the herd splits and swirls like a whirlwind. A couple of animals squirt out past a truck. Instantly, dozens follow at a gallop.
"C'mon, push them," Scott yells in frustration from behind the wheel of his pickup. "Let them stand for a minute, they'll find a spot and go." A couple of trucks close the gap, forcing the whirling mass of bison back toward the corral. As the lead animals find the gate, the rest trot behind. At 9:40 a.m. the gate swings shut. Walker regroups the park staff to begin two days of branding and inoculating calves and drawing blood to test sale animals for disease.
The cowhands' work is done for another year. Lantis will return to sales and pack trips. The roundup was good, he says. "Real good. Too smooth. Kind of like it had milk-cow syndrome."
But you hear no complaint from Louie Larson, who's taking a breather in the back of a pickup. "Great, just great," he says. He pauses as if to reflect on the brown river of bison galloping under the blue prairie sky, and then smiles. "Better than great."