Looking west toward the open prairie, we saw dozens of brown humps in the distance: bison grazing against a backdrop of yellow, grass-covered hills that rose 2,000 feet above the plain. Without knowing better, we would have thought this was the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone or the desolate Henry Mountains in southern Utah.
The scene was so peaceful and undisturbed that it was hard to believe that one of the busiest freeways in the country was less than fifteen miles away. Turning away from the bison and facing east, we could see the urban sprawl north of Salt Lake City. We were standing on Antelope Island, amazed once again at finding an incredible public land about which we had known next to nothing.
The 28,000-acre island in the Great Salt Lake, home to about 550 to 700 free-range bison, makes up Antelope Island State Park. Bison-watching is one of the most popular activities for the half million people who drive across the seven-mile causeway to visit the park each year. That’s why we went: to see them up close at the 14th Annual Live Bison Auction.
The park staff opened the pens at 8:00 that morning. About 110 small enclosures held the 235 animals for sale. People attending the auction—ranchers looking to add to their herds or raise the calves for sale in the future, or people intent on buying one of the mature animals to put food on their family’s table—had a couple of hours to view the bison before the auction began at 10:00.
We were among the first through the gate, looking like a couple of kids entering Disneyland. It’s always a thrill to see bison in the wild, but it’s rare—and dangerous—to get close to them. Walking up and down the rows between the pens, we could stand three feet away from the massive beasts without concern for our safety. The bison didn’t like it; the small crowd of humans who’d invaded their space spooked them. The 2-year-old bulls paced back and forth in their individual pens, occasionally making false charges at us as we walked past. I have to admit that a couple of times I looked closely at the latches on the pen gates to make sure they were secure. The young bulls would have liked nothing better than to escape and put a horn in our sides before heading toward the open range. The calves, two or three to a small pen, huddled together as far from the onlookers as they could get. I’m sure they were all thinking the same thought, “When my Mom comes back, she’s going to kick your ass.” But Mom wasn’t coming back.
Two thoughts went through my mind after we had walked down the first row of pens. First, do we have enough available credit on our Visa card to get a bidder number? Second, do we have enough time to run into town and rent an animal trailer and be back by sundown? I looked at Karen, and before I spoke, she said, “No! We’re not buying a bison.” Her chide didn’t stop me from thinking about where we would put our new pet. The calves only weighed 300-500 pounds; we could keep one of those babies in the backyard for a few months while we figured out a long-term plan for our herd.
Bison did not live on the island when westerners began settling nearby in the nineteenth century. As far as anyone knows, they are not native to Antelope Island; twelve of them were brought over by boat in 1893 to help the species recover from near-extinction. The original intent was not as pure as it sounds; the idea was to make money by charging a fee for the privilege of hunting the animals. In those early days, the island was privately-owned. Fortunately, the bison reproduced faster than the hunters killed them, and in 1969, the state of Utah bought 2,000 acres on the island and established a state park. By 1981, the state had acquired all of the remaining land, and today the entire island is a park.
Forty-four square miles might sound like plenty of land for a large herd, but the island can only support about 700 bison. Biologists call this carrying capacity. If the number of bison exceeds the land’s carrying capacity, it will start negatively affecting the ecosystem of the island; too many bison would put pressure on the herd as they compete with each other for food. Other mammals could be negatively affected by too many bison as well; the island is also home to pronghorn antelope, mule deer, California bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, and badgers. None of these other mammals are predators of bison, which is the main reason the herd increases so rapidly. Without pressure from predators or disease, the herd can grow by 25% each year—or more.
The park rounds up the bison every fall, usually around the first weekend in November, to manage the herd. Riders on horseback drive the majority of them into the corrals at park headquarters, where they’re vaccinated, given a health screening, and some are set aside for auction. Those not culled are released back into the park and allowed to roam free for another year.
Over the years, the park has exchanged bulls with other public lands to manage the genetic diversity of the herd. At its low point, in the 1880s, the Plains bison population was as small as 200 animals. Because of that genetic bottleneck, it’s vital for herd managers to keep introducing new genetic material from other herds. While the park may send a few of the culled animals to other public lands, most are bought by private individuals. In addition to culling the herd with the annual roundup, the park issues a few hunting tags each year for mature bulls. Hunting typically occurs in December when park attendance is low, and professional guides accompany each hunter to ensure the public’s safety.
The park has other attractions: thirty-six miles of multi-use trails spread across the 15-mile-long island. Hikers, bikers, and horses share the paths through the hills and grasslands. Biking the causeway is also a favorite activity given that it’s perfectly flat and there are fantastic views along the way. The lake is often mirror-calm, and reflections in the water of clouds and the nearby hills make for stunning photos, especially at sunset.
Another popular spot for taking pictures at sunset is Buffalo Point, a couple of miles inside the park. The short drive to the parking lot takes you to an elevated lookout; from there, you can also hike another half a mile to the top of the point for unobstructed views to the west. If you’re willing to hike the 300-foot elevation climb to the top, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views as the sun goes down. Bring a flashlight with you to light your way back to the car once the show is over.
Back at the auction, Karen and I hung around trying to look like we fit in with the crowd. Jeremy, the park manager, came over to visit with us. We told him we were only looking not buying, but he was generous with his time just the same and gave us a lot of great information about the park and the bison. He even explained how to put up a perimeter fence to ensure that my herd doesn’t “get out on the highway or into your neighbor’s cornfield.” I listened intently, while nodding my head; the entire time I could see Karen out of the corner of my eye giving me her “No! We’re not buying a bison” look.
Once the auction began, I had to watch in silence as the Carhartt-clad bidders bought my bison one-by-one. That’s OK though; they hold this auction every year. Besides, I need to pay down our Visa and get a load of well pipe for the perimeter fence around our backyard. Then I’ll be ready, and we’ll be back.