Antelope Island’s famous bison roundup is underway

by Jaymi Heimbuch

The annual bison round-up is underway in Antelope Island State Park in Utah.

Each year, the bison herd grows by about 100-150 individuals as new calves are born in the spring, but the park has limited resources for grazing. Park biologists aim to keep the herd numbering around 550 individuals to keep resources balanced. The solution is an annual roundup that not only functions to thin the herd but also ensure the individuals released back into the park are as healthy as possible.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune:

[H]orse riders round up and push the bison into small herds. The bison are then driven into a holding corral where they rest for five days in an effort to reduce their stress levels.Then, on October 27, bison are sorted and separated one at a time to receive vaccinations and health screening. They also receive a small external computer chip to store health information.Some are released back into the island and a few are later sold in a public auction.

The annual event draws crowds. The visitors can watch the bison brought into corrals by riders on horseback, learn about the health screenings the bison undergo — including a blood draw to test for diseases and inoculations — and of course enjoy music and food.

As for the bison that are auctioned, Desert News notes, “The bison sell for up to $3,000, depending on their size and the bidding of the day, said park curator Clay Shelley. Any revenues are put back into the Wildlife and Habitat Management Plan, which manages the herd and provides for protection, preservation and conservation efforts on the island, as well as development demands to provide quality visitor experiences.”

Bison Herders Wanted

In an annual roundup on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, about 775 bison are corralled and vaccinated.

The morning sky had turned to pink and it was to time to saddle up, so Benedikt Preisler, 59, strode across this grassy island to make use of the riding boots and cowboy hat he had bought the day before. “The outfit,” said Mr. Preisler, a German tourist standing in a sea of 10-gallon hats, “is necessary.”

It was the annual Antelope Island bison roundup, a Utah tradition that brings together seasoned cowboys and wide-eyed neophytes for a weekend of Western romance. Participants camp out on this island in the Great Salt Lake and spend a day on horseback chasing hundreds of bison toward corrals, where the animals are given vaccinations and about 200 are readied for sale. (The auctioned animals later become burgers, steaks and jerky.)

The event attracts local ranchers toting well-worn bullwhips as well as urban desk workers craving respite from the tyranny of the computer. For some, it is the only opportunity to interact with bison — those iconic, furry, fast-moving ungulates that are often called American buffalo and once numbered in the tens of millions before they were decimated by early settlers.

The annual roundup on Antelope Island has become a draw for seasoned cowboys as well as tourists.

“I’m a surgeon — it’s very boring compared to this,” said Paul Olive, 57, who drove 1,300 miles from Springfield, Mo., for the event. “It is an adrenaline rush to be on a horse, chasing a wild buffalo. Because it can be very dangerous.”

Antelope Island is a rugged, salt-ringed expanse just an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, and its eastern shore faces the city’s twinkling skyline. The island’s bison are the descendants of 12 animals transported by boat to the island in 1893 by frontiersmen who sought to protect a few of the endangered animals — and turn a profit — by creating a hunting reserve for the wealthy. By 1926, it cost $300 to shoot one of the animals — the equivalent of about $4,000 today.

Today, about 775 bison are on the island, making them one of the oldest and largest publicly owned bison herds in the nation. And the island is now a state park teeming with native creatures, including pronghorn antelope.

Park rangers began the roundup and auction in 1986 to ensure that the animals did not overrun the island. Pulling a move from Tom Sawyer, officials billed the task as entertainment, and began inviting the public to help.

The roundup was added to tourist booklets, and the 1991 movie “City Slickers” — starring Billy Crystal as a New Yorker out West — helped popularize the idea of a cowboy vacation.

This year’s roundup took place on Friday. Standing in a dew-kissed field, Mr. Preisler explained that he had flown from Germany just for the ride after learning about the event during a business trip to Utah last year. His horse, Joe, was a rental.

Nearby, an experienced horseman named Dean Holliday, 83, said he had worked the event since its inception and lived just a few miles away.

“Touch of the old West,” said Mr. Holliday, who had brought two grandsons along. One, a professional photographer, circled the scene with an elaborate camera rig, treating his grandfather — in a neckerchief and a cowboy hat — as if he were the star of a Western epic.

Participants of the roundup spend a day on horseback chasing hundreds of bison toward corrals.

“One of these days I’m going to hang up my spurs,” Mr. Holliday added. “And these guys are going to continue on.”

During a brief orientation, roundup leaders explained that the group would flank nearby clusters of bison and chase them north for several miles. Shouts and skyward whip cracks were appropriate means of coercion. Off limits were guns, iPods and attempts to touch the animals.

Weighing up to 2,000 pounds, bison look like bears but run more like gazelles, reaching speeds of 30 or even 40 miles an hour, and they will occasionally charge at agitators. Horses are occasionally gored.

“These animals are wild, and they don’t do exactly what you want them to,” said Chad Bywater, 40, a longtime participant, explaining that cattle roundups tend to be far tamer.

Twelve bison, also known as American buffalo, were first brought to Antelope Island in 1893 as part of a plan to create a hunting refuge for the wealthy.

A local news team readied a drone to capture video, and the 250 or so riders set off, traveling up steep hills and across plains of yellow grass, galloping behind the bison.

At one point, the animals turned on the riders, forcing a brief retreat. At another, a bison broke from the herd and went careering toward tourists watching from the roadside. Onlookers raced to their minivans, pulling binoculars behind them.

By 1 p.m., the riders had the bison in the corrals, clicking fence doors shut. It was the fastest roundup anyone could remember.

Tyra Canary, 46, a fraud detection analyst from a nearby suburb, called the ride “therapy.” “I watch your credit card for fraud eight hours a day, five days a week,” she said. “It’s really good to just get out in the sun.”

Horses lapped from a trough. Men with chaps and handlebar mustaches recounted the morning’s exploits and planned for the evening campout.

Mr. Preisler, the German visitor, dismounted and declared the ride a success. “You should do it once in a lifetime,” he said.

A night in a tent, however, was not on the itinerary. “No — oh, God, no,” he said, explaining that he had opted for the comfort of a nearby hotel.