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Island Named For Antelope, The Bison

Vestige of the Old West

The American Bison, a formidable woolly animal that many people around the globe associate with the persona of the American West, an animal so mythical some are surprised it actually physically exists - and an animal that just a century ago was on the verge of virtual extinction - lives on, on a desert island in the Great Salt Lake.

For everything that the bison has stood for - the inevitable westward expansion of land-hungry white people, the fierce elements into which they moved, the ineffable freedom produced by millions of square miles of prairie, mountain and desert, and the spirits of power, body, reverence, loneliness and self-sufficiency - the bison also serves as an enigma as wide as America. On Saturday, standing in November dust in unusual autumn warmth and fighting off an oncoming cold, I came face-to-face with six of them, six bison who were being herded and prod by cowboys and four wheel drives into ever-narrowing chutes and ramps and into the oncoming syringes of large-animal veterinarians.

To the tourists who had come to watch the annual bison roundup on Antelope Island, bison are more than a large, curious beast whose distance is best kept. The bison is a reminder that the American psyche is, at heart, wild and restless. To the international tourists who come to watch the spectacle, the Japanese, the French, the Britons, the Germans, the bison represent a link to a past that they never had, and a reminder of a West whose spirit they clamor for.

In chutes which lead from open fields down to the inoculation areas, the bison bunch up like a school of fish, warily eyeing the cowboys and their whips and electric pokers and the battered four wheel drives that push them further. Wild-eyed, they buck and run, kicking up clouds of dust which settle down on their backs. One with horns, a big bison, mock charges a smaller bison without horns. The group of six comes to rest against the reinforced fence, then when space in the pens below becomes available, the cowboys and cowgirls emerge from behind steel doors, arms out and up, and herd the animals, many of which weigh over 1,000 pounds, further into the complex of chutes and gates.

That the bison is on Antelope Island, or even still alive in America, is a strange tale of chance. According to Indian tradition, the bison were born in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In 1492, scientists estimate, they ranged from the Texas-Mexico border to Florida, north to New York, west to California, and north again into the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada. There were, it is estimated, 30 to 50 million. Native Americans slaughtered the beasts, using the animal as a sort of supermarket where a wide variety of essentials and luxuries could be procured. It has been speculated by some environmental historians that Indian mass slaughters - evidence has surfaced indicating Indians corralled the animals then drove them off cliffs - began a slow dwindling of the animal's numbers, but when whites arrived en masse in the 1850s and 1860s, the true road to extermination began. The U.S. Government quickly realized that Indian health and prosperity was closely linked to the bison, especially on the Plains. Under Federal urging, a mass annihilation campaign began, and killings by the thousands became a near-regular occurrence. In Cormac McCarthy's book Blood Meridian, the main character, after a short hard life of war and wanderings, comes across a bizarre sight on the high plains of north Texas around the turning of the century. There, men whom society will not accept make a meager living collecting the bones of bison and making roads from them across the endless Plains. While Blood Meridian is fiction, that story does begin to show the expanse of the bison kill-off. The slaughter of buffalo was equated with peace on the Plains; without the animal, the Indians were poor, hungry and desperate and, the Government believed, willing to talk peace. In 1874 Congress voted overwhelmingly to end the slaughter on the frontier. While President Ulysses S. Grant pocket vetoed the bill, later efforts were successful. By about 1900, there were only 800 bison left.

Of those 800, there was a small herd in Texas, and when Utah resident William Glassman saw the surviving animals he was so enthralled he purchased 25 and brought them to the Tooele Valley, west of Salt Lake City, where he put them in a game preserve. The preserve flopped, and the owner of Antelope Island purchased 12 from that herd - four bulls, four cows, four calves - herded them to Farmington, put them on a barge, and sailed them about ten miles across the Great Salt Lake to Antelope Island where, with plenty of forage and water and without their natural predator, the wolf, their numbers have thrived. Today there are about 750 of the animals on Antelope Island, one of the largest herds in the nation. In the 1960s, the State of Utah purchased about 2,000 acres of land at the northern end of Antelope Island and created a state park. A causeway was constructed to the southern end of the island, eliminating the need for barges, and later a second, higher causeway was built to the north end of the island. In 1981, the state purchased the island's remaining 26,000 acres, and the bison herd became publicly owned.

'The moving multitude ... darkened the whole plains.'

Bison do pretty well on their own. They don't need a whole lot of water and they are good grazers. Still, the wild herd needed some caretaking, the state decided, and in 1986 conducted the first roundup, a happening which has since become not only annual, but a fine spectator event.

At the roundup, rangers in low-flying helicopters begin at the southern end of the island, which is relatively close to the Salt Lake International Airport, and fly northward, herding the animals towards the park's pens and corrals. Not one animal is left behind, and if one refuses to go, it is shot, since without herd-wide inoculations, the herd can not be branded disease-free. As the helicopters work up the 15-mile length of the island, they are joined by cowboys and then battered four wheel drive trucks which push the herd to a large holding pen, where the bison are given a week to rest and de-stress. In the corrals, the bison are bunched into small groups then driven through chutes where in just two or three minutes each animal is vaccinated for parasites, clostridium, infectious bovine rhino tracheitis and bovine vibriosis. Blood and DNA samples are taken, as are weight and measurements, and microchips are inserted in their ears, which can be scanned by computers. Heifers are given brucellosis vaccinations and finally the females are checked for pregnancy (*hint: it involves not a urine test but a human wearing a very long rubber glove). Tests done, the bison relax in their pens for a few more days until the gate is opened and they go back to their normal lives.

The Antelope Island herd has a bull to cow ratio of one to three. Average bull weight is 1,000 to 1,200 pounds; average cow weight is 700 to 900 pounds. Weight at birth is 25 to 40 pounds. Today, bison are raised across the U.S. and parts of Canada both as a sort of national pet, a necessary component to several dependent ecosystems, and also as a viable alternative to cows. Bison are generally tougher than cows, graze easier on the land, and their meat is reported to have less fat than beef and less cholesterol than chicken. Other fun bison facts:

  • gestation period: nine months;
  • breeding season: July through August;
  • weaned from mother at: 250 pounds, or five to six months;
  • why they aren't really called buffalo: buffalo is a nickname for Bison bison . Technically, a buffalo is the even larger beast you commonly see in Africa and watery parts of Asia;
  • how many are there now: about 200,000;
  • what Lewis and Clark wrote about them: 'The moving multitude — darkened the whole plains.'

An island, though not exactly Irie

While bison have never said too much about how they like their home, we do know that Utahns have had sort of a love-hate relationship with it. Well, if not hate then at least indifference. There is evidence - rock art, pottery and trash - that Indians lived or at least visited the ten islands of the Great Salt Lake, of which Antelope is the largest. In 1843 government explorer John C. Fremont explored the lake and its islands. Later, in 1849-50, Captain Howard Stansbury used the island as a base for surveying expeditions which mapped the area and made an unsuccessful attempt to locate where the waters of the lake flowed to (we'll get to this later, but here's a clue: they don't flow anywhere.) Within weeks of their 1848 arrival to what would become Salt Lake City, Mormon pioneers under the direction of Brigham Young had visited the island and decided they were better off living in town. Though it was largely barren, often smelly and surrounded by an undrinkable ocean, the Mormons soon discovered there was one thing the island was good for: grazing. Utahns put cattle and sheep on the island and were mostly able to leave them alone. The island remained largely an enigma for Wasatch Front residents - within sight of downtown Salt Lake City but relatively unapproachable, until in the 1950s the southern causeway was constructed. In the 1960s and 1970s the state park enjoyed moderate visitation until visits came to an abrupt halt in the summer of 1983 when floodwaters from a tremendous winter covered and washed out first the southern causeway then the northern causeway. Cars would not return until 1993 when the northern causeway was ceremoniously reopened. The southern causeway is still closed.

Today, tourists who pay the $7 fee to drive the seven-mile causeway - or, $3 to bike it - can picnic, relax or camp in several campsites and day use areas on the northern 2,000 acres of the island. There are showers, a beautiful visitors' center, a restaurant, trails, sandy beaches and a small corral with about 25 bison. South of this area, in the island's wild backcountry, the rest of the island is pristine, say park managers, punctuated only by a few old roads, trails and mining claims - but very few humans. The park is gradually opening up more of the southern half of the island to visitors, but today mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners and horse riders can use four trails, three of them loops.

Away from the island's developed northern tip, visitors are often surprised with what they find on the desert island. Cliffs and steep mountainsides plunge into the lake, punctuated by coves and narrow white sandy beaches. The lake's small waves ripple on the shore, washing up driftwood. Barren peaks reach up to 6,600 feet above sea level, and 2,400 feet above the lake. Herds of not just bison but also antelope and Bighorn sheep roam the peaks and valleys. Broad bowls rumble towards the eastern shoreline, which looks back at the populated Wasatch Front and the soaring Wasatch Mountains. Much of the island's shallow shoreline is ringed with wetlands and prime waterfowl and shorebird habitat. Out west, the lake stretches on for another 30 miles or so until it reaches the Lakeside Mountains. It also sprawls 20 miles to the south and about another 55 miles to the north. The Great Salt Lake is one of the America's, and the world's, largest inland bodies of water.

'Most of the tourists who come here come so they can see the lake,' said Antelope Island State Park Manager Garth Taylor on Saturday as he stood amongst tourists, some of whom were in a line to buy buffalo burgers. 'For them it is like a big dream. The lake is known around the world as a large inland sea. They come out here to see the lake but then they realize there is a lot more.'

'Most people are surprised when they get out here,' said Gordon Christensen, a volunteer tour guide working the roundup. 'They never knew there was all this out here, like the 157 species of birds, and the history.'

'We have a part of American history and heritage here in this herd,' said Taylor. 'Of those 800 [bison] that were left in 1893, some of that original gene pool is here on the island herd. We have a small part of that. Some of the foreigners come out here and realize how unique that is. They're not sure what is, but they know it is different.'

Read next week to learn about: Why is there such a huge lake in the middle of the desert? What is the island's mountain biking like? Does Jeff get gored by a bison? Does he toss aside his militant vegetarianism and eat a buffalo burger? Check back next Monday to find out!

Part 2

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