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An Adventure Of A Lifetime: Herding The Buffalo Of Antelope Island

Nothing comes closer to being a part of the old west like a real bison roundup!

November 09, 2018

There are a lot of things that a cowgirl can do to keep herself plugged into the Western scene.  She can attend rodeos, learn to line dance, two-step, or go to a country-western concert. Then there are the equestrian-related activities, such as trail riding, pole bending, barrel racing, etc.  A gal may even get in the swing of things by trying a little cattle sorting or, better still, go on a cattle drive. However, there is nothing that comes closer to being a part of the old west like a real bison roundup!

Antelope Island is 28,000-acre state park in the middle of the Great Salt Lake.  Yearly since 1986, the park opens its doors to some 200 riders who work together to herd the bison population to the north side of the island.  It is the country’s only buffalo roundup that allows untrained volunteers to herd the surly 1-ton creatures. Originally, the bison were acquired by the Forestry conservatory committee and roam free with no natural predators.  This event is an effort to ensure that the bison thrive, which they indeed do.

The bison are descendants of a dozen buffalos brought by barge by ranchers in 1893.  The herd now number over 700. The purpose of the annual event is to ensure the health of the herd.  Once they are herded into the pens on the north side of the island, they are allowed to rest for several days, then their health is checked, calves vaccinated, branded, and eventually sorted to thin the herd for sale.

The requirements to participate in the roundup are simple.  You must be over 18, own your own horse, and register before everyone else.  The event fills up quickly. Also, no dogs, alcohol, or guns. Camping is available prior to the event (we trailered 1 ½ hours from Provo early enough to make it to the 8:00 (mandatory) safety briefing, delivered by park director Jeremy Shaw.  At 9:00 AM, we were cut loose to do the work.

The riders initially formed a loose semicircle and advanced the bison to the north.  Teams were formed to keep the herd in check: One for keeping the herd off the hills, another for keeping them toward the middle, and one more group to bring up the back and any stragglers.   The more experienced riders took the lead, whooping and hollering. A bullwhip cracked like a rifle. Fast ponies ran back and forth, up and down the hillside, preventing straggling bison from climbing too high.

At one point, a young calf broke from the herd, running in the opposite direction.  It was headed our way, so we stopped and prepared to move out of its path. Two older bison quickly turned and followed the calf, and a rider on a very fast horse expertly cut them off and moved them in the direction of the rest of the herd before we had to move out of the way. Can you say Yee-haw?

Professional wranglers were on staff to help keep ornery bison in order.  The animals weigh around 2,000 lbs and don’t like to be told where to go. They need to move their heads in order to look at anything directly.  We were warned to move out of the way in the event that a bison was looking at us; a sure sign that they were getting ready to charge. Bison, we were told, can outrun a horse, so it is best to stay out of their way.  I had no intention of being part of a bison showdown!

The roundup was a time of high excitement for everyone, including the horses we were riding.  Several riders got bucked off; I saw more than a few horses running without riders, and several others being lunged in the middle of the prairie.  My horse was on high alert at her sighting of the herd and let me know by whinnying repeatedly. I was fortunate to be on a great horse, but neither of us had participated in the event or ridden together before.

The journey to the pens covered about 11 miles and went from one end of the island, up and over a mountain, and down the other side. Although the terrain appeared prairie-like, the ground was covered with rocks of various sizes as well as ravines cut by years of rain and snow runoff.  Some natural paths, cut by the bison herd, were visible but I found it best to let my horse generally choose her own path and trust her footing. My horse (Girlie) is a trained pack horse, so traversing the terrain proved to be no problem.

I was challenged both mentally and physically on that day.  Not only was I riding a horse who had never participated in the event, we occasionally found ourselves alone behind the herd. Girlie didn’t like being out there without other horses, and nor did I!

The journey was much easier after we crested the mountain.  All downhill to the pens.

The roundup only took four hours to complete this year. We kept the herd moving rather quickly.

This is the kind of thing that cowgirl dreams are made of.  No amount of trail riding or arena work could have prepared me for the enormity and intensity of this ride.  There were a few people who had never ridden a horse before, such as the videographer I met along the way. Onlookers lined the road that ran along the edges of the island, and the “press” drove up to meet the participants about ¼ of the way through the event.  But I didn’t want to be just one of them. I rode. I participated. I’m proud!

Kathleen Reynolds enjoys life in Big Bear Lake, California, and manages her Facebook page Cowgirl Heart (Facebook.com/cowgirlheartandsoul) where she inspires and encourages cowgirls everywhere to live their best lives and embrace what makes them happy!

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