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Buffalo Tales and Meals in Black Hills - 2001-07-31

Millions of bison, often called "buffalo," used to roam the American West, but most were killed by hunters until they were nearly extinct. Today, conservation efforts have led to the return of bison in the hundreds of thousands. One of the largest herds of wild bison is in Custer State Park, South Dakota, where visitors and park employees often encounter them on the roads or near lodging. Also, buffalo raised on private ranches is increasingly sold to restaurants for tasty and healthy meals.

Visitors to the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park, South Dakota, often make their first acquaintance with bison along the park's winding roads, where the slow, huge creatures feed on grass. Often when motorists honk their car horns or flash their headlights, the bison barely budge from the roadways. And guests in the cottages of the State Game Lodge sometimes have a more unusual encounter with buffalo.

Lodge manager Pat Azinger says, at certain times of the year, some visitors may hear a faint 'brushing sound' in the middle of the night.

"In the winter, they grow a very heavy coat of hair," he says. "In the spring and summer when warm weather comes along, they start to lose that hair coat. To get that heavy hair coat off their bodies, they'll use trees to rub up against, or buildings, or [recreational vehicles], or anything else. They're a lot of trees you'll see in the park that are traditionally [used for] 'buffalo rubs.' You'll see where the bark has been rubbed off the tree and it's about the height of a buffalo."

But the year-round employees at the State Game Lodge are used to the buffalo rubs. Mr. Azinger says the unpredictable nature of the bison grazing routes has occasionally led to problems for some workers just trying to get to work. He recalls one incident a few years ago.

"Half of my staff didn't show up and it happened to be the staff that lived in the dorms," he says. "The reason they hadn't shown up I later found out was that the entire dorm area was inundated with the buffalo herd. That can mean up to 1,000 to 1,500 buffalo and they couldn't leave their buildings! It was a valid excuse for not showing up for work."

Yet another way bison are a part of the culture at the Custer State Park lodges is at their restaurants. Chef Darren Frederick and his staff at the Sylvan Lake Lodge Resort often use bison meat in their dishes from simple "buffalo burgers" to fancier meals. However they're prepared, Mr. Frederick says the meat of bison is a healthy alternative to diners watching their fat intake.

"The reason it's healthy is because it's very lean," he says. "As far as preparing it and serving it, it's done in many varieties of ways. We use a lot of [bison] in steaks, and turn them into other dishes."

Darren Frederick says preparing buffalo meat dishes is relatively simple. "You really don't have to do any trimming of the fat since a lot of the fat is already removed," he says. "And it doesn't have a lot of wild game flavor as a lot of people think it does."

Chef Frederick says he often uses locally-grown spices with buffalo meat dishes to give visitors a taste of the unique flavors of the area.

"As far as finding food in the surrounding area, you use [spices] for garnish and in the food itself sages and pine nuts," he says. "It puts the wild game [flavor] together. And when people are sitting here eating and looking out into the hills, you're eating a part of what is out there. That's my philosophy. And [the food] has to look good."

Chef Darren Frederick, who uses bison meat in his dishes at the Sylvan Lake restaurant in Custer State Park. Whether dining on buffalo meat or encountering buffalo on the road, the American bison is very much a part of a visitor's experience in the Black Hills of South Dakota.