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You have to feel for Bob Lantis. Born in the wrong century, he's a buckaroo trapped in the body of a traveling salesman. In his spare time he dons a 10-gallon hat, strums a guitar and sings of dogies, broncos and bison. "I've been a chaser of buffalo in my mind for years," he says.
Yet for a glorious moment early each fall, Lantis, 58, chases bison, a.k.a. the North American buffalo, for real. That's when he joins about 30 other cowboys and wild West wannabes who saddle up for the annual bison roundup in Custer State Park in South Dakota's Black Hills. Part work, part fun, part fantasy, the roundup combines many of the West's most potent symbols—cowboys, horses, buffalo and the wide-open prairie.
It's clear why the Sioux consider the Black Mills sacred ground. With its rugged mountains, pine-covered hills and rolling prairie, Custer State Park is a haven for wildlife. Its bison herd is among the largest public herds in existence, numbering about 1,500 after calves are born in the spring. But like most herds, Custer's bison are confined because nearby ranchers don't take to roving bands of one-ton animals that tear down their fences and mingle with their cattle. Each year as the herd outgrows its 30,000-acre range, the park enlists 30 horseback riders who help round up bison and cull roughly 325 surplus animals. These are sold to ranchers who are establishing their own herds as well as to those who raise bison for their meat and hides. A two-year-old bull fetches about $1,200 at a late-fall auction that supplies a quarter of the park's annual operating budget.
The roundup, an event once attended only by park personnel and a handful of outside cowhands, has grown into a celebration of Americana. The park must sort through applications from more than 100 would-be buckaroos to pick the lucky winners. Even South Dakota governor Walter Miller hops on a horse to help out.
"It's getting bigger every year," says Craig Pugsley, the park's visitor service coordinator. To make things more exciting, before the roundup begins park staffers push the herd down toward the corrals, into a more manageable area of 2,000 acres. "We used to round them up in this whole eight-mile area, and what would happen is that folks would come out and sit for six hours and never see anything," Pugsley says. "Now people get to see the work of two or three weeks unfold in front of them in two or three hours."
On Sunday cowhands begin to arrive, and park staffers drive 10 to 15 pickup trucks into the horse camp. That afternoon hundreds of park visitors gather for a chili feed and cook-off at the park's Blue Bell Lodge. In the evening riders gather around a campfire at which Lantis holds center stage, playing a guitar and reciting cowboy poems, with a thousand stars overhead and a full moon rising over a gurgling stream.
The men and women who will ride the next day come from far and wide. Larry Thompson, 60, a retired hospital administrator who breaks horses, hails from Lame Deer, Mont. He imagines his great-grandfather clutching a bow and arrow and riding bareback through a sea of bison. "My ancestors did this," says Thompson, a Lower Brul� Sioux. "I figure what goes around comes around, and now I'm having a chance to do it."
Louie Larson, 50, who works for a horse trader near Minneapolis, is riding in his first roundup, though he has come to Custer for more than 30 years. "It's something I've wanted to do ever since I was a little boy," he says. "Once you get in there and the buffalo are running, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about."
"You get into this thing, and it just grows on you," says Lantis. In his day job Lantis, from Rapid City, S.Dak., peddles cleaning chemicals to schools and hospitals. On the side he's a wilderness outfitter, taking hunters and tourists into the backcountry. "You anticipate all year long four hours of riding," he says of the roundup. "We ride further than that going up to hunting camp, but it isn't with nearly the anticipation we have for a roundup. I think part of it is the chase factor. I always say, deep down in my heart I'm hoping them mothers run like hell."
By 7:30 a.m. on Monday, hundreds of spectators have gathered on the ridge above the corrals. By the chutes and fences, riders and park workers receive last-minute instructions from Ron Walker, the park's resource program manager. Stick together, he warns: "We don't want any Lone Rangers down there."