Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
ANTELOPE ISLAND STATE PARK, Utah (AP) -- In 1893, bison -- all but wiped out after decades of slaughter -- came to Antelope Island, but not because of the Endangered Species Act or a firestorm from environmentalists. They came because businessmen, cattle ranchers and hunters wanted their chance -- so common in 1850, so rare in 1890 -- to drop the one-ton beasts.
By 1893, an Antelope Island State Park brochure estimates there were only about 800 bison -- down from a high of at least 45 million -- remaining in the United States that year, when the first dozen were shipped to the island.
It wasn't a reintroduction. There is no evidence that bison roamed Antelope Island before Kit Carson named it for the herds of antelope found there. There were mule deer, coyotes, bobcats and bighorn sheep, and maybe the occasional mountain lion or elk, according to Clay Shelley, curator of Fielding Garr Ranch. But no bison.
It wasn't an attempt to save the species, either. Opportunity simply knocked -- when William Glasmann couldn't draw people to his Buffalo Park on the Great Salt Lake's south shore, he put his dozen bison on the auction block -- and Antelope Island owner John Dooly answered.
Glasmann, an Ogden publisher, thought the once-common species was finally novel enough to make a nice tourist attraction. Apparently, it wasn't. Dooly decided to see if shooting a bison was rare and attractive enough to supplement income from his cattle ranch. He also apparently brought over eight elk, another potential hunting trophy, according to the Aug. 17, 1893, Davis County Clipper.
The elk were soon gone -- "It's not really elk country," Shelley said -- but the bison troop started what is now the oldest publicly owned bison herd in the world.
The bison herd is now worth about $120,000 annually to Antelope Island State Park, money made from an auction of excess animals (on Nov. 19 this year) and spent on habitat projects and other bison management activities.
The park also still allows six hunters to harvest bison, a practice that adds another $8,000 to state coffers.
Hunts started at least by 1896, when the Standard-Examiner reported a group of Salt Lake City hunters shot a 2,317-pound bison after ranch managers noticed the animal "becoming savage."
Occasional hunts continued and the herd grew. To 28 in 1905. To about 100 in 1910. Between 1910 and 1926, the herd fluctuated between 100 and 400, growing then being thinned by hunts when the animals ate too much of the cattle's grass. In 1920, the Parowan Times called it the largest herd in the United States.
The howls from preservationists started around then, when a bison tag cost $200. In 1921, for instance, the Eureka Reporter delivered a scathing attack on the hunting of Antelope Island's "noble herd." The Reporter and the Times both noted efforts to buy the island and turn it into a wildlife preserve.
That didn't happen, but in 1926, the bison hunt -- perhaps too much of a burden with public sentiment mounting against it -- effectively ended. It went out with a bang: The final "Big Buffalo Hunt" killed all but a few of the island's bison.
Ranchers continued to kill a few bison a year to keep the herd in check, but the numbers rebounded slowly, according to "Visions of Antelope Island" by Marlin Stum.
Meanwhile, sheep replaced cattle as the animal of choice on the island, and the last antelope died of starvation in 1933, Stum wrote.
When the state of Utah completed its purchase of the island in 1981 -- realizing the wildlife preserve goal of 1920s preservationists -- the bison herd had grown to about 250 head, all of which were grazing on the island's interior, away from about 1,200 cattle that used the island until 1984.
There were still no antelope or bighorn sheep -- the natives were brought back in 1993 and 1997, respectively. They also gave elk another shot, releasing a dozen in 1993 along with the antelope. But it was no more successful than the first release 100 years earlier.
"They either drowned or swam off the island," Shelley said.
Most headed for the Oquirrh Mountains, the Tooele County range, said Steve Bates, now the habitat biologist for the island, but a few stayed for a while.
"I found the last cow's bones four years ago," Bates said.
Under state park management, the bison herd got larger than ever, and managers started to worry that overgrazing would return, this time by wild bison rather than domestic sheep and cattle.
So, in 1987, the annual Bison Roundup began, the most recent version of which was last weekend. The herd is now managed closely, bison are treated annually for parasites and disease, and numbers are thinned not by hunting but by the annual auction, which also pays for bison additions to supplement the gene pool.
Bates keeps the old cows -- which lead the herd -- until they stop calving, and sells off mostly calves and 2-year-old bulls, a total of 150 to 200 a year.
He takes note of range conditions and adjusts the herd size accordingly. (It's been kept to 450 for the last few drought years, but is now on its way back to 550 with the healthy vegetation.)
It's a more scientific method than the grow-and-hunt (or "slaughter," as the Eureka Reporter termed it) that occurred through the 1920s. But it's still human management of a species that, if left unchecked, can eat more than is good for its range.
Only now, instead of several thousand cattle or sheep, the bison are sharing the island with 200 antelope, 200 bighorn sheep, 250 mule deer and 300,000 annual visitors.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)