Special Friends: Custer State Park’s Begging Burros Beckon You Back, Slobber and All | Black Hills Travel Blog

Special Friends: Custer State Park’s Begging Burros Beckon You Back, Slobber and All

  • Special Friends: Custer State Park’s Begging Burros Beckon You Back, Slobber and All
    Special Friends: Custer State Park’s Begging Burros Beckon You Back, Slobber and All
By : 
Tom Griffith

Among the most popular attractions in this million-acre pristine playground known as the Black Hills is Custer State Park, a 110-square-mile preserve that’s a world away from your regular day.

 

While bison herds, rippling trout streams, scenic drives and towering granite spires rising from the forest floor garner most of the attention from visitors, nowhere will you feel more welcomed than during a chance encounter with the park’s infamous “begging burros.”

 

 

Certainly, it’s easy to be distracted by alpine lodges, barking prairie dogs, playful buffalo calves, soaring eagles and a medley of wildflowers dancing in the breeze alongside the roadway. But, happen on these begging burros, which are in fact small donkeys, and you’ll feel as if you just made a new and very special friend – particularly if you had the forethought to pack a snack.

 

These animals have roamed the expanses of Custer State Park for nearly a century when they were first used as pack animals to get visitors from Sylvan Lake Lodge up the steep path to the summit of Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rockies. When those tourist trips ended, the working burros were released to the wild and the tiny feral herd has since shared the park with neighbors, including whitetail and mule deer, wild turkeys, elk, antelope, bison, and coyote.

 

 

Commonly seen on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop, these critters are uncommonly friendly, stopping to say hello to every slowing motorist, and sneaking their heads into every auto that offers a chance for a quick snack, no matter the season. For the more skittish visitors who opt to keep their windows rolled up, the begging burros generally leave a slobbery mess on those same windows, but it’s nothing a little water and a squeegee won’t resolve.

 

The burros aren’t very particular when it comes to consumption, and you’d never know from their eating habits that they survive primarily on prairie grasses. While Custer State Park officials recommend visitors not feed the burros anything, I can tell you from personal experience with these rascals that they’ll basically eat anything, from turkey sandwiches and potato chips to any type of cracker, which evidently are among their favorite foods. But, they’re plainly not picky.

 

 

As friendly as the begging burros are, they are not without their detractors. Enemies include those same cars that fail to slow down, wildfires that periodically flame up in the Black Hills, and deadly rattlesnakes which are prevalent throughout the region.

 

Last December, the Legion Lake Fire flared up in Custer State Park, and blazed a trail into adjacent Wind Cave National Park and eventually onto private land, decimating some 84 square miles in total. The wildfire also endangered the begging burros which couldn’t get out of the way of the rapidly advancing flames.

 

When the blaze was finally extinguished, park officials found all nine of their most popular residents had sustained injuries, ranging from dehydration and hoof damage to facial swelling and burns. Three of the burros had to be euthanized and the remaining half-dozen were transported from the park to receive veterinary care. When they were returned to the park in late April, they were joined by four newcomers donated by the Beaver Creek Buffalo Co. of Jefferson, S.D., which had previously purchased burros from the park.

 

 

Sadly, as if the fire hadn’t done enough damage, just three months after their celebrated return to their favorite habitat, another burro died after being bitten by a rattlesnake. In an online post, park officials used the death to remind visitors that the venomous snakes are active throughout the preserve in the summer months.

 

But, this year hasn’t been all bad news for the begging burros. Just three months after the snake bite felled the lone burro, Custer State Park announced its newest resident.

 

“After a rough couple months for our burro herd, the park received a pleasant surprise this week,” the park posted on Facebook. “We have a new baby burro!!”

 

 

The news was welcomed by all of us who treasure these friendly four-legged creatures who rub shoulders each day with Rocky Mountain goats, buffalo, and bighorn sheep, before boldly greeting us on the roadway and depositing their deepest sentiments on our car windows. I mean, what’s a little saliva between friends?

About the Author

Tom Griffith is a fourth-generation South Dakotan who studied literature and drama at the University of London before graduating from the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. An award-winning reporter, photographer and managing editor at newspapers in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota, Tom also has written or co-authored more than 70 books and his travel features have been published in more than 300 newspapers and magazines from New York to New Zealand.

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