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Best Places to See Bison in South Dakota

Updated on October 31, 2011

Home on the Range

If you have never visited South Dakota, you're in for a surprise. The state is split in two by the Missouri River. The land east of the Missouri is called "East River", the land to the west is "West River".

When people think of South Dakota, many picture the flat farmlands of east river. West river is completely different - the prairie starts to roll, the sky opens up to fill the horizon in every direction until you finally reach the Badlands and Black Hills region on the western edge of the state.

This is bison country, the home of the Lakota Sioux people who were the original hunters of the majestic American Bison. In the late 1800s these animals were hunted nearly to extinction by settlers who would kill an animal and take only the tongue to sell as gourmet food to easterners, leaving the corpses to rot under the prairie sky.

American bison were reintroduced to western South Dakota in the early part of the 20th century. Bison are making a comeback today with free-roaming herds such as you can see at Custer Sate Park or Wind Cave National Park or on private ranches such as 777 Ranch or privately and tribally owned herds of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian Reservations.

Bison on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
Bison on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

This herd lives with Poker Joe outside of Pine Ridge Village. Please note that this is a private residence. As you pass out of Pine Ridge Village, look for signs to see the white buffalo calf and they will lead you to Poker Joe's place.

There are a number of small bison herds on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Most are owned by families or individuals, although there is a small herd owned by the tribe.

You may have to do some driving around to get a glimpse of the Pine Ridge bison, but you'll be driving through beautiful country that will make the trip worthwhile. Be respectful on private land, ask permission if you want to try to get closer, but don't try to get too close to a bison herd, or it may be the last thing you do.

Wind Cave Bison
Wind Cave Bison

Buffalo Gap/Wind Cave

Wind Cave is the site where the first attempt to restore the American Bison to the Great Plains was made.

The surface of this national park is a Great Plains preserve, with a herd of about 400 American Bison, as well as other plant and animal species native to the plains.

The Wind Cave National Park herd is considered one of only four remaining genetically pure bison herds in the U.S.

The most beautiful and interesting way to reach Wind Cave National Park is along the 7-11 road through the Buffalo Gap, or Pte Tali Yapa as the local Lakota tribe call it.

This is a place of cultural and religious significance to Plains tribes as it marks the natural migration route of bison herds into and out of the Black Hills. The tribes followed the herds through the Gap, and began their yearly cycle of religious observances here.

Custer State Park

Yes, he really was bigger than that SUV. Take a drive along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park and you may run across this guy or other members of the park's herd of 1300 bison. Yes, you read that right, and the herd is free-roaming throughout the park.

Custer State Park is the place you're most likely to come across bison in western South Dakota. When individuals are near the road, getting ready to cross or just eating the grass, all vehicles on the road tend to stop to allow the bison to safely cross the road. And also because an encounter between a bison and a vehicle is likely to leave the vehicle worse for the wear.

Every September, Custer State Park hosts a buffalo stampede that draws hundreds of spectators to watch cowboys gather the entire herd and bring them in to be counted and checked over by park vets. Animals are then chosen to be sold off, to keep the herd at the optimal size for their habitat in the park. If you've never heard the thunder of 1300 bison running towards one spot, you are missing out on a stunning experience.

While it is true that you can substitute bison meat for beef in any recipe, it is not true that bison and beef are cooked the same way. Bison is a much healthier meat than beef because it contains little to no fat. The lack of fat though means that you need to cook bison slowly over low temperatures or you'll end up with tough, overcooked meat. Bison also has a more subtle flavor than beef, so use a light hand with seasonings.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound ground bison
  • 1 t. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 1/4 t. pepper
  • 1 garlic clove
  • minced

Instructions

  1. Add seasonings to the meat and form 4 patties. Grill or fry over low heat, about 10 minutes. Serve.
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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I love this. Thank you for sharing some of the things to do and see in S. Dakota.