Just before Christmas of 2017, the Black Hills of South Dakota suffered it’s third largest wildfire ever, burning 54,023 acres of forest and prairie. That’s more than 84 square miles.
You probably didn’t hear about it because the massive California fires – which pre-dated this one (and continued long after) – sucked the air out of the news cycles. But it won’t be long before people planning to visit the Black Hills this summer or the buffalo roundup in September, start wondering if there is anything left to see! I hasten to reassure you that there certainly is.
First some background:
High winds in Custer State Park on the morning of December 11 downed a power line and sparked the tinder-dry pine needles and pine cones lining the forest floor. Just recently it was revealed that debris piles – including stacks of unwanted tree tops left behind by loggers – fueled the fire, sending flames as high as 100 to 200 feet in some places. It was almost a week later before the winds died down enough for some three hundred firefighters to even contain a fraction of the blaze, and by then it had spread into adjoining Wind Cave National Park, plus prairie and ranchland to the southeast, threatening several small towns and a major highway before finally being squelched. (The snow that finally arrived toward the end of that week certainly helped.)
But that was six months ago, and a lot has happened since. Far from deterring visitors, this wildfire offers a unique opportunity to witness the aftermath of a natural cleansing. Fires have swept through the forests of North America for tens of thousands of years before the area saw its first human inhabitants. Fire is one of Mother Nature’s ways of clearing out the old to make way for the new. Historically, Native Americans set fire to the prairie each spring to encourage the nourishing fresh green sprouts to return. They understood that if the wildlife weren’t well fed, they wouldn’t be as healthy themselves to provide nourishment in turn for the humans.
The same applies to trees. We were fortunate here that because of numerous back-burns that were set by the fire fighters, not only were the many historic structures in the park saved, but the effect on the trees was also minimized. Many trees will actually survive. (I’m reminded of the historic tree-ring exhibit located in the Park’s visitor center, showing that the tree had survived not just one wildfire, but many in its long life.)
So the forest and prairie will be replenished. The wildlife, however, is a little more problematical, and many of the first inquiries after the fire started, were about the fate of the beloved burros and, of course, the buffalo. After all, the park was established in 1914 as a wildlife sanctuary, and the welfare of the herds is a top priority.
Pleas for hay to feed the buffalo were issued immediately, and answered just as swiftly. But as the fire spread to private land it became apparent that the local ranchers were losing pasture, fences and outbuildings containing hay for winter forage (but thankfully, no homes) and the park started distributing the hay to their neighbors instead.
Fire mop-up was still going on when the Park announced a mini-roundup to be held immediately to assess the health of the herd and vaccinate them, if necessary, for pneumonia. They found injuries among both burros and buffalo, and unfortunately three of the nine burros remaining after last fall’s auction didn’t make it.
After the need to feed the animals, there is the issue of the fences. This fire swept right through the wildlife loop area, where the buffalo are traditionally rounded up every fall. Fences are crucial not only for protecting the wildlife, but facilitating the roundup itself. And they don’t come cheap. Buffalo fencing employs far sturdier fenceposts than cattlemen use: 13 feet tall, with 7 feet below ground, and 6 feet above. And the wire is also upgraded from typical western barb-wire fencing and reinforced with wood in the roundup and corral areas.
Custer State Park is the second largest state park in the nation, and ranks on a par with many national parks. Despite its nickname – “the jewel of the South Dakota state park system” – it receives no funding from the state, and relies on gate receipts, concessions and recreational activities for it’s support. And the sale of those buffalo following the roundup is a major part of the park’s annual budget.
We have a lot of work yet to do. Mother Nature will do her part in the healing process, and you can be sure that the capable park staff will do the rest. We here in the Black Hills feel a personal ownership of this park. And with tourism ranking as our number one industry, we have a vested interest in making the area as welcoming and functional as possible for this year’s visitors.
So if you are thinking of attending this one-of-a-kind event, this is the year to do it. We still have availability on the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup guaranteed departure, Sept. 23-Oct. 1. This once in a lifetime experience is going to be more meaningful than ever this year. Send for your registration packet today!