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A Century of Wildlife Recovery in Custer State Park

by Jennifer McIntyre published 2019/06/06 09:46:00 GMT-5
A Century of Wildlife Recovery in Custer State Park

A sign near the apex of the Lover’s Leap trail in Custer State Park informs visitors that they have entered “a place where one can still be an unworried and unregimented individual and wear any old clothes and sit on a log and get his sanity back again.” The park’s value for frazzled folks seeking the sanctuary of nature is indeed worth celebrating, given its world-famous scenery. As it IMG_1581.JPGmarks its one hundredth anniversary, however, Custer State Park’s role in preserving the region’s native wildlife stands as perhaps its most significant contribution, not only to the state, but to the broader project of conservation in America.

Two centuries ago, the Northern Great Plains teemed with large grazing mammals such as bison, bighorn sheep, elk, and pronghorn, not to mention predators like wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition entered present-day South Dakota in September 1804, Meriwether Lewis marveled that the landscape, “already rich pleasing and beautiful[,] was still farther heightened by immence herds of Buffaloe deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains.” In the decades that followed, most of those species were either decimated or driven deep into the Rocky Mountains, casualties of habitat loss, market hunting, and misplaced fear. By the time South Dakota became a state in 1889, there were as few as one thousand bison left on the entire continent and only slightly more bighorn sheep. Elk and pronghorn fared marginally better, though early twentieth century observers nonetheless feared that both species were doomed to extinction.

Given the tenuous position of the state’s large native mammals just over a century ago, state senator Peter Norbeck’s push to create a game preserve to highlight these animals came at a crucial moment. Norbeck, an admirer of the conservation-minded former president Theodore Roosevelt, envisioned using some of the “rough state land west of the [Missouri] River” to “make a collection of our native wild game such as antelope, deer, mountain sheep and even buffalo.” Other legislators agreed, and in 1913, the state set aside a swath of land between Wind Cave National Park and the town of Custer for use as a game preserve. The state allocated funds to bring in four thousand deer, two thousand buffalo, one thousand elk, five hundred antelope, and one hundred fifty mountain goats, the latter being the only species not native to the area. That same year, a small group of bison arrived at Wind Cave from New York City, of all places, effectively beginning the reintroduction of the species to South Dakota.

In 1919, during Norbeck’s tenure as governor, the game preserve became Custer State Park. The park is still home to one of the nation’s largest public bison herds in addition to bighorn sheep, elk, mountain lions, pronghorns, and, curiously, a small population of burros. The park’s wildlife loop is one of its biggest draws, as is its annual bison roundup. Limited hunting seasons on the park’s large mammals draw considerable interest and a consistent source of revenue. Indeed, in addition to its profound ecological impact, the reintroduction of native wildlife into Custer State Park has provided a raft of recreational opportunities for South Dakotans and out-of-state visitors. If you have the chance to visit Custer or any of the wildlife-rich state and national parks and preserves that dot the American West this summer, keep this history in mind. But make sure to enjoy yourself, too.


Cody D. Ewert


In the undated photo at top, a herd of bison roams the hills near Custer State Park. South Dakota State Historical Society, Digital Archives