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On the buffalo trail at Antelope Island

The annual roundup of bison by volunteers is a chance to see the enormous animals, icons of the American West, up close.

July 05, 2009|Hugo Martin

ANTELOPE ISLAND, UTAH — "How do you move a 2,000-pound bison?" a rider on a horse next to me asked. The punch line to this joke: "You don't."

Buffaloes don't herd easily. If pushed too fast, they lower their heads and charge at anyone dumb enough to get in the way.

But that is exactly what we were trying to do -- about 150 riders and me as we trotted across a flat field on Antelope Island in the middle of Utah's Great Salt Lake. Ahead of us, a herd of about 250 bison -- a woolly, snorting blanket of black shoulders and rising dust -- shuffled toward the corrals on the north end of the island. To move the animals, riders whooped like warriors. One rider snapped a bullwhip.

In all the commotion, at least eight riders were thrown to the ground, and one suffered a broken wrist.

Still, that's the kind of excitement that draws riders from across the country to the annual Bison Roundup on Antelope Island, one of the country's few buffalo roundups that allow untrained volunteers to herd these surly 1-ton creatures.

At other roundups -- the most famous takes place every September at Custer State Park in South Dakota -- visitors stand behind fences as professional cowboys do the hard work. But on Antelope Island each fall, any adult with a horse and the $25 admission fee can help herd bison into corrals.

My fascination with buffaloes began as a kid, when I fell in love with the movie "Bless the Beasts and the Children," about a group of misfit boys who sneak away from summer camp to save a herd of buffaloes from certain death during a "canned" hunt. Since then, I've been mesmerized by the sight of brawny bison rumbling across open fields -- a timeless image, like thunder clouds forming or whales breaching the surface of the sea.

I thought I was alone in my buffalo fascination until I arrived on this 28,000-acre island in mid-October and watched a stream of pickup trucks, horse trailers and RVs roll onto a grass field. Some of these fellow bison fanatics traveled as many as 600 miles to spend three days enduring freezing temperatures, choking dust clouds and sore keisters to marvel at this iconic symbol of the American West.

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Even Buffalo Bill Cody had a soft spot for these beasts.

Cody, an Army scout and Pony Express rider, killed thousands of bison to provide meat for workers on America's expanding railroads in the mid-1800s. Back then, millions of buffalo roamed the plains from Mexico to Canada -- so many that the pounding of their feet echoed like rolling thunder. When herds crossed railroad tracks, trains were delayed for up to half a day. The railroad companies responded by allowing passengers to shoot the buffaloes from the rail cars.

"The moving multitude . . . darkened the whole plains," wrote Meriwether Lewis, who along with William Clark encountered a herd at South Dakota's White River in 1806.

But in a few short decades, American Indians, hunters such as Cody and others slaughtered so many buffaloes that the once-thriving herds dwindled to only 800 animals. Shamed at the widespread massacre, Cody later in life joined efforts to preserve the namesake animal he became famous for hunting.

Eventually, preservation efforts rescued the bison from the brink of extinction. Today, about half a million bison roam public and private lands across the country; the biggest herd, about 4,000 bison, grazes in Yellowstone National Park. (The terms "bison" and "buffalo" are used interchangeably, although biologists note that the American bison is only distantly related to the water buffalo and African buffalo.)

Antelope Island's bison are descendants of a dozen buffaloes brought by barge by ranchers William Glassman and John Dooly in 1893. With plenty of grazing land and spring water, the bison thrived. When the state took over the island, park officials invited the public to take part in the annual roundup. Each year, for the last 22 years, the bison are herded into pens so veterinarians can perform medical tests, administer vaccinations, collect blood and check the cows and heifers for pregnancies. To ensure the population does not exceed the island's food supply, some are sold at auctions. The state also sells handful of hunting permits -- about six -- to cull the older bulls that are too ornery to herd or put in trailers.

For the roundup's first 19 years, state park officials relied heavily on helicopters to herd the bison. But the helicopters put too much stress on the bison, so in 2005 officials turned over the roundup reins to volunteer riders -- nonprofessionals like me.

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The night before the roundup, I shivered in a tiny tent on a lumpy grass field near Fielding Garr Ranch, the horse rental concession on the south end of the island.

Before I arrived, Utah state park officials told me most bison wranglers camp on the island during the three-day event. Clearly, I didn't understand their definition of "camping."

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