Utah Bucket List: Annual bison roundup offers modern cowboys a ride on the wild side
Antelope Island • The bison had heard enough cracks of the whip and yaws coming from the annoying creatures on the backs of the horses.
In the blink of an eye, the cow turned from the herd and charged the closest target. The horse, or perhaps the rider, was expecting it to happen at some point and moved almost as fast — almost.
Light contact was made as the cow head-butted the back flank of the horse. No blood was drawn, and now content to have showed her disapproval, the bison trotted back to the herd, her tail high in the air.
It is a called a roundup, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the bison of Antelope Island actually just are tolerating being pushed in a direction they likely already had been considering.
“I didn’t know the difference between bison and cattle,” Christa Greenfader said after riding in the annual Antelope Island Bison Roundup in the fall of 2012. “Herding bison is apparently a lot like herding cats. They choose where they are going to go and you just follow them.”
Greenfader had traveled from Venice, Calif., to ride in the bison roundup. It was a trip three years in the planning, and she got more than expected, watching a bison chase her husband’s horse.
“That got the adrenaline going,” she said. “We survived.”
The public has been invited to help Utah State Parks officials collect the wild bison on the 28,000-acre island for nearly three decades. The roundup is more than an opportunity for people to ride horses and chase the mangy beasts; it is used to help keep the herd healthy and from growing too large.
“We have to sell the numbers down to what the island can support,” said Jeremy Shaw, manager of Antelope Island State Park. “The roundup allows us to inoculate the animals we will keep and gather others for the auction.”
Steve Bates, the Utah State Parks wildlife biologist in charge of the bison, determines what the island’s population should be each year. He allows for more bison to be sold during years of poor range conditions.
There typically are between 700 and 750 on the island when the roundup starts, and the annual population goal is about 500.
People buy the bison at the auction for many reasons. Some are starting their own herd. Others arrange for the animals to be transported to a butcher to end up in the freezer. Some of the animals are purchased to help train cutting horses because bison are stronger, faster and more agile than cattle.
Bison are not known to be native to Antelope Island and were introduced to it in the 1890s when it was private. The state took over management of Antelope Island and the bison in 1981.
Helicopters and four-wheel-drive vehicles were used in addition to the horses during the roundup for many years, but park officials eventually decided just to let horse and riders do it.
“This is the most exciting ride of the year,” Kendalyn Hill, of Bountiful, said. “The scenery just can’t be beat. This is a special part of Utah’s culture to be able to come to Antelope Island to see this herd.“
There are plenty of stories of charging bison and antsy horses shared among the 400 or so riders who show up to spend a couple of nights camping and riding on the island, but not every rider is a hardcore cowboy or cowgirl.
Many riders form flanks on the sides of the herd as it is being pushed to the corrals and may never get closer than 100 yards or so from the beasts. The real drivers of the herd ride just behind the mass of grunting mammals and take turns making runs at the rear animals to keep them moving.
And you don’t even need to have your own horse. People like the Greenfaders hire the horseback riding concessionaire on Antelope Island to provide a horse and someone to tag along with on the ride. Those reservations often are made a year in advance.
It is possible to watch the roundup even if you don’t ride. Many people pull over on the road heading to the Fielding Garr Ranch on the east side of the island to watch as the animals are pushed north toward the corrals. The 2012 roundup was an exception to this possibility because the bison were on the west side of the island with no vehicle access, but the majority of years the roundup is on the east side of the island.
People also can visit the corrals after the roundup to see people giving the bison a health checkup and culling them out for possible auction.
Animals not selected for the auction are released to be captured in images from tourists all over the world.
For Amanda Reylence, who originally is from England, the bison roundup was the draw to visit the biggest island on the Great Salt Lake. And while the ride greatly exceeded her expectations, it was other wonders of the adventure that especially pleased her.
“When we got near the bulls, they were fighting and getting aggressive,” Reylence said. “They were so big and there was all this grunting and groaning. It was absolutely fantastic and breathtaking. The whole experience of looking at the bay and the mountains. People came from all over America. It was just lovely. I will do it again.”
Experiences and responses like that are what got the bison roundup on The Utah Bucket List and why park officials will strive to keep it an active public event.
“This is one of the few things Utah State Parks does on its own,” Shaw said. “Most times we are just a venue for somebody else to put on an event. We really love it and plan to keep it this way. We want to maintain that unique experience for the public to be able to come and be an active part of Antelope Island.”