Elk NetworkIt Wasn’t Hard to Social Distance at the South Dakota Rendezvous—Even from Bison

Conservation , Volunteer News | September 22, 2020

When you go to a RMEF rendezvous work project, you don’t expect to be joined by an enormous bull bison. However, if the work project is in Custer State Park, you may find that to be the reality. During last year’s work project in 2019, South Dakota West River State Chair Jerry Hirrschoff had seen a massive bull in the area. This year in 2020, the bull was back. He was in sight during the whole project, as Hirrschoff and other South Dakota volunteers removed encroaching conifers from an aspen enclosure with loppers and handsaws.

“We had to keep an eye on him at all times to make sure he didn’t wander too close to where we were, but he kept his social distance,” Hirrschoff jokes.

Hirrschoff, who has been an RMEF volunteer for over 25 years, met 33 other volunteers at the Custer Gulch Campground on Friday, June 12, ready to get work done the next day. The Custer, Mitchell, Yankton, Platte, Chamberlain, Brandon and Rapid City Chapters all had representation.

Attendance was down from the almost 60 volunteers that showed up the year before, but the turnout was still impressive given the circumstances. “We actually talked about postponing or even canceling this year due to COVID-19,” says Regional Director Mason Cooper. “But 34 individuals were like, ‘We’re going out to Hills and camping at Custer’s Gulch like we do every year. You need to line up a project, because we’re going out there no matter what.’”

So Hirrschoff worked with Mark Hendrix from South Dakota Game Fish and Parks to line up a project in Custer State Park.

It was a 2-day instead of a 3-day rendezvous this year, without the customary ice cream social for the whole campground, but it still was a good opportunity to get work done for wildlife. Everyone arrived Friday night and had dinner on their own. Saturday was work day. The volunteers broke into two groups and went to different sites. They tried to take precautions to keep people social distanced. “Of course out there in the Black Hills it’s not hard to social-distance,” says Hirrschoff.

The volunteers fixed fences around aspen enclosures where trees had fallen and damaged them. Then in eight of the enclosures, they removed small conifer trees, which were growing up and threatening to choke out the growing aspens that elk and other wildlife in the Black Hills love so much.

“Everybody was ready to get out and about and absolutely enjoyed it,” says Cooper. “We had beautiful weather. It got a little warm, but it cooled off in the evenings. I want to say it only got up in the 80’s or lower 90’s.”

The enclosures fence off the young aspens and allow them to grow for 10-15 years so that they can grow to the point where a browsing elk won’t kill them. Then the enclosures will be removed, and the elk can enjoy grazing and bedding among the mature aspens.

Saturday night, the volunteers celebrated a successful work project with a dinner of burgers and brats. “We are very lucky in South Dakota to have such a great group of volunteers,” says Cooper. “Year after year for the last 20 plus years we’ve worked on great projects every summer, and hopefully we’ll continue to do many more.” The 2021 rendezvous is scheduled for July 15-18.