Bot Bahlmann is a wildlife photographer and the executive director of an outdoor education non-profit called Explore the Outdoors.
Bison have been called the symbol of the American West. They once roamed from Canada to northern Mexico. Market hunting and habitat alteration nearly brought the wild bison to extinction by the early 1900s. Thanks to careful management, bison can now be found in several areas of Utah, including the Henry Mountains and Antelope Island. Recent transplants from the Henry Mountains have been introduced into the Book Cliffs.
The male bison are slightly larger than the female and can reach up to 6 feet 6 inches tall, 11 feet 6 inches long, and weigh up to 2,200 pounds. Bison have massive heads and forequarters, and both sexes have short, curved horns. They live mostly on grass and are usually found near open plains or mountain meadows.
Bison make their homes in plains, grassland, and open woodland habitats. The large free-ranging herds from pre-1900 made long migrations (several hundred miles) between winter and summer ranges, but today's bison make much shorter migrations or do not migrate at all. Bison are grazers that mainly feed on grasses, although other vegetation may also be consumed.
Females typically give birth to one calf in early spring but may give birth as late as mid-summer.
Like all wild mothers, female bison will protect their calves.
Although bison may look friendly and lazy, they can be very unpredictable and may attack for no apparent reason.
The rutting, or mating, season lasts from June through September with peak activity in July and August. At this time, the older bulls rejoin the herd and fights often take place between bulls. The herds become restless during the breeding season and the animals are often belligerent, unpredictable and dangerous.
There are more people injured by bison in Yellowstone National Park than all the other wild animals combined. Bison are big, fast and unpredictable and should be given plenty of room.
When insects become an irritant for wild bison, they use several techniques to discourage the pesky bugs. Their tails work well as a fly swatter, but aren’t long enough to reach very far. Bison will also roll in the dirt to cover themselves with a dusty layer of organic insect repellant.
Perhaps the most innovative trick bison use to discourage insects is called horning. Bison will rub their horns against trees and saplings. They seem to prefer plants with a strong smell like cedars, junipers, and pines. Some biologists believe the bison have learned that the aromatic smell from these trees helps keep insects away.
An Historical Look At Bison
Bison played an important role in the life of the Plains Indians. They killed only enough bison for their needs and used every part of every animal they took. They used the hides for tepee coverings, blankets, clothing and footwear. Bison hair was braided into rope. The hooves were made into rattles and the horns were used for cooking and eating utensils. They even used dry bison poop, called buffalo chips, as a fuel for their fires.
Unfortunately, when the white men arrived, some of them saw the massive herds of bison as a way to make lots of money. Market hunters methodically killed hundreds of bison. This slaughter, along with diseases passed on from domestic cattle nearly wiped out the American bison.
The Henry Mountains
The original 18 animals of the Henry Mountains herd were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park in 1941. They were released in the arid desert of Robber’s Roost and naturally moved across the Dirty Devil River to the Henry Mountains. The herd has done well on the Henrys and has grown to between 300-400 animals.
In January 2009, the Utah Division of Wildlife transplanted 31 bison from the Henry Mountains to the Book Cliffs approximately 100 miles to the north.
Bison have made good use of the wide variety of habitat in the Henry Mountains. They can be found from the grassland flats at just over 5000 feet in elevation on Blue Bench to the sub-alpine meadows at over 11,000 feet on Mount Ellen and Pennell.
The bison herd on Antelope Island is world famous. This herd got its start when twelve bison, four bulls (males), four cows (females) and four calves were taken by boat to the island on February 15, 1893, by William Glassman and John Dooly. The island was later purchased by the state of Utah, and these twelve animals have grown into one of the largest and oldest publicly owned bison herds in the nation.
Antelope Island Bison Roundup
Every year, in late October, Utah Division of Wildlife personnel and volunteers climb aboard their horses and participate in the annual bison roundup. The bison on the island are gathered and herded into holding pens where they are examined, weighed, vaccinated, and decisions are made on culling and selecting breeding stock.
The majority of the bison are turned loose within a few days and are allowed to roam free on the island. The herd fluctuates between 550 and 700 animals. Approximately 150 to 200 calves are born every year, and since there is a limited amount of habitat the excess bison need to be culled and removed.
Bison from this island are often sent to other herd locations around North America. Some bison are also purchased in a yearly public auction and are taken as meat or breeding stock for commercial bison farms.
One of the best-kept secrets in the western United States is Antelope Island. Owned by the state of Utah and managed as a state park, Antelope Island is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake.
There is a wide diversity of wildlife on the island, including bison, California bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, mule deer, and smaller critters like burrowing owls, chukar partridge, and porcupines.
Because there is a regular stream of park visitors, the animals are fairly easy to find and observe. Opportunities to view wildlife are available on backcountry trails, which are open to horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing. A visitor center offers information on the island's unique biology, geology, and history.
Please be aware that during May and part of June (usually until the weather reaches 90 degrees), Antelope Island has biting gnats (or "no see'ums"). Wear a hat or light hoodie and protect your face and neck with bug spray. Insects on the causeway are midges that don't bite, and brine flies along the lake's edge are harmless.
Access to the island is via a causeway from Syracuse, Utah. There is an entrance fee, and camping is available.