Custer State Park Burros & Bison – Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

July 2017 – Custer State Park in South Dakota is a wonderful place to see wildlife up close, and we ended up driving the Wildlife Loop Road quite a few times during our stay.

Wild burros with RV Custer State Park South Dakota

The “wild” burros in Custer State Park are surprisingly tame!

The “wild” burros are actually feral burros that were “set free” many decades ago. Now they are known as the “begging burros,” and for good reason!

As we drove on the Wildlife Loop Road with pro wildlife photographer, Steve Perry, and his wife Rose, we were astonished when some very bold burros walked right up to our car.

Car with wild burro Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Wild burros approached our car.

Wild burro approaches car Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve reaches out to pet a “wild” burro in Custer State Park.
The burros here rightfully earned the nickname, “begging burros!”

The white burro pressed his nose against a closed car window and made funny faces at us…

Wild burro at the car window Custer State Park South Dakota

A burro presses his big nose against the car window.

The other poked his whole head right in!

Wild burro head in car Custer State Park South Dakota

Another burro sticks his nose right inside the car!

It turns out that these begging burros are the rather lazy descendants of a very hard working group of burros who began taking Custer State Park visitors on rides from Sylvan Lake up to Harney Peak back in 1927.

Little girl with wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The wild burros are very accustomed to people, but not all the people are accustomed to the wild burros!

After a few years of providing these fun sounding burro rides, Custer State Park officials decided to end the rides, and they simply let the burros go.

Petting a wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

“Look what I found. Can I keep him?”

Nowadays, the burros are so accustomed to human visitors — and are so fond of the treats that many humans bring them — that they are quite fearless and are more than happy to mingle with tourists. They even let folks pet them.

Boy and wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The burros don’t mind being petted.

Custer State Park encourages people not to feed the burros, but while we were there loads of people got out of their cars with bags of food for them. Keeping the burros’ waistlines in mind, though, most folks showed up with something nutritious like a bag of carrots or romaine lettuce.

Feeding a wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Although signs say not to, lots of visitors bring snacks for the burros.

On our first foray into Custer State Park, we had been amazed just to see the wild burros and their foals from a distance, period. But this time we found ourselves standing right next to them.

Wild burro mare and foal Custer State Park South Dakota

We saw several moms and babies.

Wild burro mare stands watch over foal Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Standing watch.

Wild burros nuzzing Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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The burros were so darned laid back that one mom suddenly did a barrel roll in the dirt, letting a cloud of dust fly.

Wild burro dust bath Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Mom takes a dust bath!

I was smitten by the little foals. They had such sweet and innocent faces.

Portrait wild burro foal Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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One foal was particularly mellow. It must have been nap time, and when I knelt down next to her and stroked the soft fur on her head and neck, she leaned her whole weight against my leg and closed her eyes. Naturally, I was thrilled!

Burro foal resting Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

I could not believe this little foal was so trusting.

Wild burro foal on the Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

“Look what I found. Can I keep her?”

Custer State Park’s herd of bison is another big draw for tourists, and the opportunities to see them are plentiful. Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres are fully enclosed by fencing, and there are roughly 1,300 buffalo in the Park’s buffalo herd. The herd is carefully culled and maintained each year.

On the day that we were out photographing prairie dogs with Steve and Rose, we suddenly noticed there was a huge group of bison approaching us from the distance hills. As the leaders drew near, we turned our cameras away from the prairie dogs and focused on the approaching buffalo.

Group of buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

A huge herd of bison came down out of the hills towards us.

There were both buffalo cows and bulls in the herd and lots of buffalo calves as well. They came down from the hills in a long, steady stream.

Buffalo herd approaches Custer State Park South Dakota-2

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The herd fanned out and approached us like an approaching army. It was a little unsettling, even though they were walking slowly.

Bison herd approaches in Custer State Park South Dakota

The herd approaches.

Even the prairie dogs stood up on their hind legs to see what was rattling the roofs of their underground compound.

Prairie dog stands up when herd of buffalo approach Custer State Park South Dakota

“Who’s making all that noise?

As they approached us they stirred up the dust with their hooves.

Buffalo herd Custer State Park South Dakota

The dust flies as the herd approaches.

A few even stopped for a dust bath as their comrades marched on.

Buffalo dust bath Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo takes a bath.

The herd easily numbered a hundred, and they moved steadily towards us, getting closer and closer. We kept taking photos, but we all began to back up towards the car.

Bison herd Custer State Park South Dakota

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All of a sudden they were within just a few feet of us, and let me tell you, these animals a huge.

It felt like a gang was surrounding us as they walked towards the road and then circled around us and the car. We could hear them breathing, and we could hear the grass rustling as they moved pass. The gravel in the road crunched under their feet. Their huge heads swayed slowly back and forth as they came right towards us.

Photographing buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve takes photos of the approaching bison.

It was an incredible opportunity to take some portraits! Each buffalo was completely different. Some had tall horns, or widely spaced horns or sharply curving horns. Some had long faces and others had broad faces.

Approaching buffalo Custer State Park South Dakota

Every buffalo portrait revealed a totally different face.

Bison head Custer State Park South Dakota

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Buffalo head Custer State Park South Dakota

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The bison were big and burly and a little frightening up close, but as we studied them, we could see they lead very hardscrabble lives.

Mark got photos of one that had a big open sore on its side that was bleeding. We weren’t sure if it had been gored by another buffalo or had scraped itself on a tree branch, but it was a surprise to see a bright red oozing wound. Another had a horn that had broken off.

Bison with broken horn Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo’s life can be rough and tumble.

As we clicked away with our cameras, all I could think of was the scary statistic from Yellowstone National Park: Each year more people are gored by bison there than are attacked by grisly bears! I backed up to the car and stood in front of the open door for a few last shots and then dove into the car in a panic.

Steve’s wife Rose was already in the car, and she cracked up as I fell all over myself getting in.

I sorted myself out, and then we both watched anxiously as Steve and Mark remained outside the back of the car, madly taking photos as these enormous animals closed in around us.

Buffalo head Custer State Park South Dakota

Watch out for those sharp horns!

Finally the two crazed photographers threw their tripods in the trunk and then jumped inside with us, slamming the doors closed and rolling the windows up.

The bison surrounded us like a big black sea, walking slowly alongside the car within a few feet. Then, like water flowing around an island, they moved on down the road, more interested in finding greener pastures than in bothering with the silly photo crew in the little car.

In the distance, we could see other members of the herd running across the meadow. It was amazing to see the huge creatures nimbly galloping, the calves dutifully scampering right behind.

Buffalo on the run Custer State Park South Dakota

Buffalo on the move…

Buffalo cow and calf runnning in Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo cow runs at full speed with her calf following close behind.

And then, as quickly as it started, the show was over.

The entire herd had easily covered a few miles of ground in a very short time, moving from the hills on one horizon to the stream, trees and meadows on the other. What a fabulous experience that was.

Buffalo on dirt road Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park south Dakota

We’ll always treasure our memories of this unusual buffalo encounter.

Buffalo calf Custer State Park South Dakota

Not quite as sweet as a baby burro, perhaps, but the buffalo calves were still pretty cute!

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8 thoughts on “Custer State Park Burros & Bison – Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

  1. Custer State Park is my husband’s favorite of all parks, even more so than Yellowstone. In 2006 we were there during burro foaling season & I fell in love w/a black new born that kept drawing us back to the wildlife loop for many days. I just couldn’t get enough of him, he was so sweet. His Mom was patient w/me but kept a watchful eye. We met you folks many years ago in the Florida panhandle & have been enjoying your posts for many years. Thank you for sharing your adventures.

    • Custer State Park is an incredible place, Beth, and as you know, there’s a wonderfully laid back and quiet quality to it that is hard to find at the famous National Parks. What fun you must have had with that little newborn foal. Such great memories, I’m sure! Thank YOU for following our adventures all these years after meeting us in Florida. I am touched to know you have been with us for so long!!

  2. Wow! What incredible bison photos! You’re right, each one looks entirely different. I hope the one with the injury is OK. Again, stupendous photos of the burros and bison!

    • Thank you, Art & Roxanne. We really enjoyed taking the photos and having a chance to mingle with the animals a bit (keeping a safe distance from the bison!). I think the buffalo with the big cut on his back will be okay in the long run, but those guys do take a beating!!

  3. Great photos Emily and Mark. I’m not sure I would have stayed around for the arrival of the bison! They are huge for sure!

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