Antelope Island Buffalo
Antelope Island is the largest of the eleven islands found in the Great Salt Lake. It is a rocky and arid place. The island is uncomfortably hot in summer, infested with biting flies, and often smells like the southbound end of a northbound horse when the breeze comes in from the lake. It is a miserably cold place in winter although the bugs and the smell are mercifully absent. The island is roughly the size of the District of Columbia although given its conspicuous lack of politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists I find it an infinitely more appealing place. Briefly considered for national park status in the 1950s, a small portion of the island was made a state park by Utah in 1969. The remainder of the island was granted state park status in 1981. A causeway links the island with the mainland.
Despite its drawbacks Antelope Island is a remarkable and often spectacular place. It is a haven for wildlife, particularly birds. Oddly, its eponymous animal was extirpated from the island before the beginning of the Second World War. In 1983 the state re-introduced 27 antelope to the island. They thrived. An additional 100 animals were released in 2003. They are often seen as one drives the island’s roads.
More numerous and more conspicuous than the antelope on the island are American bison. In 1893, with buffalo on the brink of extinction, the island’s owner somehow managed to carry twelve of the very large animals in a very small boat safely to their new home. For decades the beasts were at the heart of various commercial schemes and in constant competition with the island’s cattle population for its meager resources. Still, they flourished. Utah acquired control of the bison when the island was transferred from private ownership to the state. It is one of the largest publically owned buffalo herds in the world, typically numbering from six to seven hundred individuals. It is difficult to visit the island and to not see bison. They often graze along the roads and sometimes wander slowly in front of traffic, moving arrogantly, indifferently, to a time and a rhythm their forebears followed for millennia. Those who visit Garr Ranch, a favorite birding stop at the island’s south end, often find tufts of wooly brown fur clinging to low-hanging branches, and more: while birding around the springs at Garr Ranch one must keep one eye on the trees above and the other on the ground beneath. I myself learned the hard way that a steaming fresh pile of buffalo dung is deeper than my walking shoes are tall.
The herd ranges freely across the island most of the year. In late October or early November the animals are driven to holding pens at the island’s north end where each is weighed, checked, inoculated against brucellosis and other infectious diseases, and tagged with a microchip that includes the individual’s medical history. Surplus animals, typically calves, are sold to help maintain the island’s population at a sustainable level. They mill restlessly, several per pen, their eyes wide with – curiosity? fear? excitement? I cannot say. The parade of trucks and trailers streaming across the causeway on auction days is remarkable. Vehicles from all of the western and central states and even further may be seen. But when the tumult ends and the buffalo are released they run, wild and free, as magnificent as their ancestors that once roamed the Great Plains.