PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota's legislature chipped in $500,000 during the recently completed legislative session for a bison interpretive center in Custer State Park, and state officials say plans for the structure are moving along briskly.
"Next week, we'll get our first look at an interpretive design," said Matthew Synder, Superintendent of CSP, speaking before the Game, Fish and Parks Commission's regular meeting that convened last week. "Things are tracking really well."
Snyder said he hopes to be "breaking ground" in June.
The bison center sprung from the mind of Helmsley Charitable Trust trustee Waltzer Panzirer, who worked on a Boy Scouts project with his son, say park officials.
The trust donated $4 million, with Panzirer giving $100,000 of his own money to fuel the $500,000 in private donations needed. The legislature also authorized spending $500,000 on the project.
The bison are often the main attraction in the park, stemming from three dozen bison purchased by Fort Pierre rancher Scotty Philip in the early 20th Century.
One question raised by Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, a Democrat and enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, during the debate on the legislature's portion is whether or not the center would "telling the correct story" of the bison.
During committee questioning, the state director of parks and recreation, Scott Simpson, assured Heinert the park had "learned our lesson" and would "provide input sessions" to hear from the public.
In fact, at an October meeting first announcing the bison interpretive center — which is slated to break ground yet this spring or early summer and be open in 2022 — Simpson himself said that along with lessons on the bison's role in grassland conservation and the history of the park's herd, "I'm sure we'll have some Native American history."
The bison, commemorated as the "national mammal" by Congress in 2016, is also greatly valued by many tribal nations, both for bodily and spiritual subsistence. But so far, it's unclear whether tribal bison experts have been consulted by CSP or the center's design team, Taylor Studios of Rantoul, Illinois.
"We have not been contacted by anybody," said Arnell Abold, executive director of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, an organization headquartered in Rapid City, South Dakota with ties to over 70 tribes across the U.S. "I definitely think that if they want some tribal perspective, they should reach out."
Abold said to understand a tribe's own story with the buffalo, which were nearly killed off during America's westward expansion, the best resource is the tribe itself, "as there is a unique reason why the buffalo is important to each of these tribes."
Requests for interviews with Taylor Studio staff were not returned, though the company posted photographs to social media from a visit in March to the park, showing a white board session to generate ideas.
The park's spokesperson said he could not meet a press deadline, noting calving season is a busy time in the state facility. In February, Simpson told the Senate State Affairs committee the center, which drew ceremonial words from Gov. Kristi Noem at last year's buffalo roundup, was on "an aggressive timeframe."
Many lawmakers say they hope to score a tourism gem with the park's construction, noting that the visitor center — to be located near the bison corrals — will be accompanied by a new parking lot off a spur from the park's wildlife loop.
Sen. Maggie Sutton, R-Sioux Falls, told the senate the center's "goal" is to tell "more of the story of the bison herd," as well as "increase visitation" to the park.
And — for now — it appears right on schedule, meaning tourists looking to spot some of the 1,400, free-roaming bison in the park, one of the world's largest publicly-owned herds, will soon have a more august conduit.