The sun was just coming up when I drove onto Antelope Island State Park on Oct 30 Bison were grazing on both sides of the road, and I had to stop a few times and wait as they lumbered across the road. But by the time I reached the Garr Ranch on the southern end of the island, I felt I had driven onto the set of a Hollywood western. 250 volunteer cowboys were saddled up on their horses and were getting their final instructions. At 8 am they spread out in a long line and began their slow walk north. Ahead of them the bison began to move. This was the day of the annual bison round-up. By the end of the day, the more than 500 bison on the island were milling about in the sturdy corrals in the northern part of the island.
After giving the bison a day to catch their breath, the park managers started to move the bison through the corrals until, one by one, they stepped on the scales. The young calves born that spring weighed in at about 400 lbs and the old bulls topped the scales at over 2000. The next step was into the restraining chute. It was time to get vaccinated and have a quick medical checkup.
Over the clanging and banging of the solid metal pens, I could occasionally hear the vet cry, “Pregnant!” This seemed to be the magic password, as the front gates of the chute would fly open and the heifer would dash off into a pen that would return her back into the island. The others needed to wait.
This whole story began in 1873 when 12 privately owned bison were sold to the owners of Antelope Island. These twelve thrived in this harsh environment. They grew shaggy warm winter coats and plowed the deepest snow drifts, swinging their massive heads back and forth, down to the grass below. A bison will eat 40 pounds of grass a day. Antelope Island is only 15 miles long and 5 miles wide There is just enough grass to support a herd of 500. Since there are no wolves or natural predators on the island, the park managers will need to sell the excess numbers at an online auction.
In the 1500’s, an estimated 50 million bison roamed the Great Plains. The Native Americans revered them and harvested them mindfully. They found a use for every bison part – including the stomach, which proved a reliable water jug. But the western expansion of white settlers led to the deliberate slaughter of the bison. By the end of the 19th c, only 300 bison were left in the wild.
The chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian National Museum, William Hornaday, spend two summer in remote corners of Montana harvesting and old bull, a calf, and 4 young bison. He brought the hides back to Washington and built a display that he believed would be the only chance for future generations to see this vanishing species.
In Yellowstone National Park, 2 army men patrolling the park on cross country skis witnessed a poacher shoot a bison. The poacher had put down his rifle and was busy severing the trophy head. The two soldiers quietly skied up close enough to apprehend him with their revolver. Still the park’s bison herd dwindled to 23 -until 1902 when he army purchased 21 more from private owners.
The Yellowstone herd now numbers over 5,000.
Today, between parks, private herds, and tribal lands the bison now number half a million.
Bison have come roaring back from the very edge of extinction.
This is Mary Heers and I’m wild about Utah.
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio upr.org
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Wild About Utah Postings
US FWS Bison Images: https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/search/searchterm/bison
Clifton, Jameson, Get Involved With Plans To Manage Yellowstone National Park’s Bison, Wild About Utah, June 1, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/get-involved-with-plans-to-manage-yellowstone-national-parks-bison/
Boling, Josh, The Henry Mountains’ Bison Herd, Wild About Utah, January 14, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/the-henry-mountains-bison-herd/
2021 Bison Roundup, Antelope Island State Park, Utah Department of Natural Resources, Oct 30, 2021, https://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/antelope-island/bison-roundup/
Cabrero, Alex, Annual bison roundup held at Antelope Island State Park, KSL TV, October 30, 2021, https://ksltv.com/475592/annual-bison-roundup-held-at-antelope-island-state-park/
Cox, Erin, Hundreds of volunteers gather to participate in annual bison roundup at Antelope island, Fox 13, Scripps Local Media, https://www.fox13now.com/news/local-news/hundreds-of-volunteers-gather-to-participate-in-annual-bison-roundup-at-antelope-island