I had the great opportunity to go out to Antelope Island to photograph the bison roundup for the State of Utah with Hollie Brown and some members of the media. Though the roundup is held every year, this event is for many folks a once in a lifetime event. Its an opportunity to participate in a timeless tradition of herding, riding and community with many of the participants coming back year after year for this unique tradition. For me, being close to a species that is largely unchanged from the late Triassic to early Jurassic periods is an absolute rush. The world was similar to today, but with many more species of giant animals that we’ve unfortunately lost to extinction. Bison themselves were almost lost to history because of uncontrolled hunting which reduced their range over most of North America from upwards of 60 million down to a few herds numbering in the low hundreds by 1889. Their comeback has been one of the highlights of modern conservation.
The day began early with a trip up I-15 out of Salt Lake City and out across a causeway on the Great Salt Lake to Antelope Island, the largest of 9 islands in the Great Salt Lake. The Great Salt Lake is an amazing natural resource that is absolutely critical for migrating birds. Millions of birds stop over at various points throughout the year to feed, rest and mate. Its an ideal place to go birding as there are quite a few species that use the lake including bald eagles.
Orientation was at 8am. We were introduced to the roundup, got an introduction from Ron Taylor, the islands manager, heard from the roundup coordinators on protocol and the dos and don’ts of the roundup (Do pay attention to the buffalos eyes and their tail. Do not wear your headphones) and met up with other members of the media including a contingent from Hill Air Force Base doing an article. The Air Force must have crazy money for photographers as all of them had multiple Nikon D3s cameras with hefty lens budgets as well. Its a far cry from the absurdly old camera gear that many DOD photographers had just a couple of years ago, so good on ’em.
My favorite photo of the day was this one… I’ll leave it without comment.
Getting introduced to our horses was next. Hollie Brown (my sister in law) was the media coordinator for Utah State Parks for this event and was along for the ride to shepherd us, answer any questions and generally keep us out of trouble.
The herd of bison is one of the oldest managed herds in the United States, dating back to 1893 and was started from 12 bison brought to the island by William Glassman and John Dooly. It turns out that Antelope Island is an ideal location for the bison. The island is remote and the majority of its acreage is grassland with ample water supplies provided by over 40 natural springs found on the island that bring fresh water to the surface.
The roundup is a yearly event held at the end of October and is designed to help manage the herd and ensure its continued health. The bison are driven during the roundup to a corral where they are rested for 3 days, then sorted through chutes, vaccinated against parasites and infectious diseases, weighed and measured, microchipped, collect blood samples and test the cows for pregnancy. Any animals over the calculated carrying capacity of the island (500) are sold off and revenues generated are returned to the island to pay for operating costs, habitat improvement and environmental research.
Spectators also come from around the world to line up on the road and watch the bison roundup take part in the hills above. It is a unique experience in the American West and an opportunity that we almost lost through mismanagement back in the 1800’s.
Ron Brown with R&G Horses brought a number of horses down from Wyoming for us to ride. Ron is a true gentleman and brings with him an impressive team of handlers and wranglers to ensure that the horses are healthy and capable of the rigors of the roundup. They are also master cowboys capable of making required field repairs to equipment that sees rigorous use and certainly saved my day as well as a few others during the roundup. My horse for the day, Twister turns out is a veteran of many movies and television shows. He’s a spirited horse who loves to run and I was grateful for his swift company across the hillsides of Antelope Island.
Many thanks to Hollie Brown from Utah State Parks for spending the day with us, answering questions and making sure we got the pictures and story of the roundup.
A pic of me during the roundup courtesy of Djamila Grossman.