Utah Bucket List: Annual bison roundup offers modern cowboys a ride on the wild side
Editors note: This story about the annual roundup was first published earlier this year. The next roundup is Friday and Saturday.
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 are just 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 27th annual Antelope Island Bison Roundup is being held at Antelope Island State Park this Friday and Saturday, and while registration to participate on horseback is closed, the general public should be able to view the roundup from the road on the east side of the island (bring bincoulars, spotting scopes and cameras) and around the Whiterock Bay Trailhead.
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 in 2012. "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."