Where the Buffalo Roam
Late in the 19th century, the Henry Mountains were the last major mountain range mapped in the continental United States. They are a remote and rugged place, an island of green that rises more than a mile above the sea of red rocks that surround them. The Henrys cover an area more than 25 times the size of Manhattan Island, and are nearly half the size of Rhode Island, but there are no towns, no homes, no paved roads, few dirt roads, and no permanent inhabitants. There are the earth, the sun, the sky, the wind, and, in a few locations, a bit of water. They are a very elemental place.
In 1941, in cooperation with the National Park Service and Yellowstone Park, Utah relocated eighteen bison to the San Rafael desert, southwest of the town of Green River. Unexpectedly, the animals promptly began to move toward the Henry Mountains which were plainly visible in the distance. They forged the Dirty Devil River, made the Henrys their summer home and the Burr desert below their winter home. In 1963, the herd, numbering roughly 70 animals, made the Henrys their year-round home. The mountains have been kind to the herd. It now fluctuates in size from 300 to 500 animals. It is one of only four free-roaming bison herds remaining in the world. People interested in bison sometimes try to find the herd, but from the ground it is a remarkably difficult task, like looking for 500 needles in a vast field filled with hay. The Henry Mountain group of bison is referred to by many as “the ghost herd,” often discussed but seldom seen.
After several months of careful planning, I spent a long weekend looking for the ghost herd. On the first day, an unfriendly rock took a bite out of one of my tires, 25 miles from the highway and 45 miles from the nearest town. I had a spare, but no guarantees that a second hungry rock would not leave me disabled and stranded, possibly for days. I put on the spare, crossed my fingers, prayed to the rock gods, and limped gingerly back to town to look for a new tire. I approached from a different direction on the second day and made it to snow line, and then above. The sun shone brilliantly from an electric blue sky, but the bison could not be seen below us. On the third day, I approached from yet another direction, again without success. And then I rested.
Down but not out. I’ll be back, hopefully with a bit better luck, sooner than the ghost herd may realize.