This time fellow Adventuress Adrienne takes us on a very special equestrian adventure: the yearly bison roundup on Antelope Island, Utah. The stunning landscape at the Great Salt Lake is the setting for thrilling action trying to drive a herd of almost 800 bison in their winter pens. Adrienne shares her a unique inside experience as part of the team of nearly 300 riders and horses facing the impressive and almost fearless bison.
Author: Adrienne Rubin
Driving across the causeway from the outskirts of Salt Lake City to Antelope Island feels like arriving on another planet. The salt flats begin on either side of the road, so still it appears surreal. Water like glass mirrors the distant mountains, dead trees bleached white in the sun stand out like strikes of lightning against the endless sky, and the rugged, treeless island ahead resembles a lunar landscape.
The largest island in the Great Salt Lake (which is nearly the size of the whole state of Rhode Island), Antelope Island covers 42 square miles and instills in its visitors a sense of desolation. A handful of bent and twisted trees line the bottoms of steep ravines running down the hillsides, but for the most part the terrain feels barren and rocky, covered with tawny prairie grass.
Home to Free-Ranging Bison
Jagged rock formations crown the mountain spine that runs the length of the island, offering views towards the sprawling Salt Lake City metropolis. Sunlight reflects off glassy skyscrapers, just across the expanse of salt, water, and mud, but the city is dwarfed by the mountain range just behind it, and it feels a world away from the stillness and silence of the island. Don’t be deceived though – beyond the tranquil calm, the island is home to free-ranging bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, porcupines, badgers, and coyotes, who all thrive here, far away from the ever-expanding human footprint just across the causeway.
Although the antelope gave the island its name – in 1845 when John Fremont and Kit Carson “discovered” the island, they had themselves a tasty, pronghorn meal – but the bison are the main attraction. They were introduced in 1893 and have remained ever since, now one of the largest and oldest publicly-owned bison herds in the country. Although they could stroll across the salt flats if they wished when the lake level is low, they remain. The grazing is abundant and the trails used by visitors to the island, on foot and mountain bike, only cover certain sections of the island, primarily on the north end near the Island’s two campgrounds. The bison thrive, unmolested, meandering as bison do, grazing to their hearts’ content.
Bison Roundup on Antelope Island, Utah
Once a year, the bison are rounded up by volunteers on horseback, who steer them into winter holding pens where the year’s calves are vaccinated, injuries and ailments are doctored, the herd is thinned, and some are later auctioned off in order to maintain a population suitable for the island. 50 mounted rangers from the historic Fielding Garr Ranch on the island are joined by 250 volunteers on horseback for this spectacular and unique event each October, and thousands flock to the island to spectate.
How did I end up in Utah?
Back in June, I was sitting in the waiting room at the equine vet, drinking the free coffee and thumbing through magazines. I came across an article about the Antelope Island Bison Roundup and immediately decided it was something I had to find a way to do. I had been to Antelope Island before and had been captivated by the unique landscape, the stillness, and the bison. The problem? I didn’t have a horse, a truck or trailer, or anyone to go with, so I opened the invitation to everyone I knew in the Colorado horse community.
Many riders thought the event sounded intriguing but were worried that their horse would lose its marbles at the sight of a single massive bison, let alone hundreds (a highly likely scenario), and many did not have the right kind of rig for the trek. Camping is offered at the Fielding Garr Ranch on the island, but very few facilities are provided – riders must bring their own camping/camper/living quarters trailer setup, corrals or highlines for their horses, as well as provide their own meals and water.
An Adventurous Friend
One of my foxhunting friends immediately jumped on board. A prerequisite for foxhunting is a thirst for adventure, a brave horse, and experience navigating difficult terrain, so I knew she could handle it, and she even had an extra horse for me! Her husband was a little more skeptical. Erik called me a few days later, saying “hey, so Wendy said we’re signing up for this thing, this bison roundup? And, well, I have…some questions. A LOT of questions actually, I mean this sounds pretty out there.” I answered him as best I could, but having never been before, I didn’t really know what to expect either. Ultimately, we all decided it was too epic an opportunity to pass up.
Making the trek
We left Fort Collins, Colorado, early on a Thursday morning. Not too early, since it had snowed the evening before and we didn’t want to be hauling 15,000lbs on slick roads, but we wanted to arrive by mid-afternoon. North into Wyoming, and then across I-80 and down into Utah, making our way towards Salt Lake City and then cutting across through Ogden and Syracuse to get onto the island. Wendy and Erik had both spent time in Utah but had never before visited the island, and it’s a hard place to describe. “It’s like another planet,” I said, “but you’ll see what I mean when we get there.”
Sure enough, we were captivated by the landscape as we crossed the causeway, gazing in wonder at the snow-dusted mountains surrounding the Great Salt Lake, the ridgeline of Antelope Island rising out of the stillness in front of us. Dry, dead trees dot the salt flats, bleached white in the sun, their empty branches reaching towards the charcoal sky like lightning. The low water level in the distance gave off an illusionary effect, where sometimes the water reflected the mountains and sometimes it appeared to disappear altogether.
Spotting The Bison
Once on the Island, it didn’t take long before we spotted the bison – one here, one there, wandering along the edge of the salt flats or grazing in the tall, dry prairie grass. Soon there were several, then small herds. We stopped the truck to let a few pass in front of us, and then two massive bulls off to the right started to fight. They stared one another down for a moment before butting heads, tousling back and forth, and then the bigger of the two knocked the other to the ground.
He leapt up again and the scuffle continued, moving through the herd. Some bison moved out of the way, some merely watched, as if bored. Cars began lining up, as some of the herd had now moved into the road, blocking traffic. The two bulls seemed oblivious to the cars, and one truck had to quickly back up to let them through. Bison don’t tend to be deterred by much – they don’t go around or over things, they go through things.
Bisons Are Fearless! Are You Fearless Too?
Bison, up close, are bigger than you might imagine, and they seem bigger when you’re comparing them to horses. Bulls can weight up to 2,500lbs and stand as tall as 6ft at the shoulder. Despite their cumbersome and ungainly appearance, they can turn on a dime and run up to 40mph – faster than a galloping horse! Imagine a bulldozer that can spin like a top and then and accelerate like a racecar. With no natural predators, they’re fearless, and are considered one of the most dangerous animals in North America, although they only attack when provoked. Attempting to round them up, though, could easily be considered provocation.
We drove the rest of the way to the ranch in silence, contemplating the size, speed, and aggression of the clash we had just witnessed, but the lively atmosphere as soon as we pulled in assuaged some of our fears. We set right to work setting up the electric corral for the horses, and two cowboys rode over to greet us. Members of one of Utah’s many mounted posses (something I wish we had in Colorado; it sounds like fun!)
Getting Familiar With The Terrain
Ed and Jeff had been coming to the roundup for many, many years. They were eager to share their knowledge and experience and invited us to join them the following day for some exploration of the island, to get familiar with the terrain before the Big Day. We all had a hundred questions, and they were more than happy to chat, extensively, and they were about as excited for the roundup as we were! Once we got set up, we tacked up our horses for a short, late-afternoon ride.
Meet Our Horses
Let me take a moment to comment on our horses. Wendy rode Athena, her gray Arabian-Friesian cross, Erik rode Xander, a North Swedish horse, and I rode Balius, Wendy’s home-bred Appaloosa, Arabian, Clydesdale cross, if I remember correctly. Exotic as their Greek mythological names would suggest, they were by far the most unique horses in the event, surrounded by quarter horses, paints, appaloosas, mules, and other ranching stock. It was a consistent conversation starter throughout the weekend, but despite their unlikely breeding, they were the perfect mounts for the tough terrain and rode beautiful on the Big Day.
The sun was beginning to set and a chill had taken to the air – the mountains to the west are so high that the sunshine disappears long before the sun dips below the actual horizon and the temperature plummets, so our ride was short. We took a lap around the outside of the fenced-off camping area and then rode towards the Fielding Garr Ranch and down towards the water’s edge, surrounded by tall prairie grass. At one point, Balius, who was in the lead, froze with her head up and ears forward.
At first, I didn’t see them, as the slanting sunlight catching the dust made the cold air sparkle, but I could hear a rustling that wasn’t quite the wind in the grass. Maybe thirty yards from us were a dozen bison, calmly grazing, but moving in our direction. The deceptively tall grass almost hid them, and they moved without a sound. Either oblivious to the horses or indifferent, they didn’t seem to notice us but the horses certainly noticed them. They were vigilant and alert but didn’t panic, and we slowly backtracked. “I think I would rather stay in the back on the Big Day. I don’t want to get any closer to those bison than we just did,” Wendy said. We all agreed that sounded like a logical plan, for our first Roundup.
Friday morning, we set out to ride with Ed and Jeff, along with a half dozen other riders who had all participated in the Roundup many times before. We rode through the prairie grass, sometimes as high as our horses’ backs, and up the hill towards the spine that runs along the island. At the top, we had a spectacular view over the Great Salt Lake, to the mountains in the distance. The lake is so still it’s impossible to tell how big it really is, and the scale of everything around it feels like an optical illusion.
Being Part of a Great Community
The camaraderie between Roundup riders was evident – riders look forward to this event all year, not just for the excitement of rounding up the bison, but to reconnect with old friends and meet new faces. We could not have been more warmly welcomed by everyone we met, making us feel like family. Our camper neighbor, Derry, was in her seventies and had driven out from Washington state by herself with her new, young horse, Cash. We immediately took her under our wing and promised to use the buddy system and all stick together on the Big Day.
Friday evening the campground really came alive. Rigs were pulling in right and left, some brand-new oversized campers with flat screen TVs on the outside and every possible feature you could ever need or dream up, some old rust buckets towing equally sketchy-looking stock trailers. Pens went up in a flash, friends found one another, and posses loped around the campground, drinks in hand.
Mastering The Bullwhip
The sound of the bullwhip could be heard from every corner. Whether riders were trying to acclimatize the horses to the sound, practicing for the Big Day, or merely showing off, it was hard to tell. Erik, a gregarious bear of a man, made fast friends and convinced one western-movie-cowboy-villain-lookalike to teach him. After watching a girl knock her own hat off with the tail end of the whip, he opted to keep his hat and sunglasses on for additional protection. He even managed to get a solid crack just once!
Saturday morning dawned with excitement in the air but a serious demeanor. Trucks and trailers continued to pull in and spectators began to arrive, cars lining the road from the ranch back across the Island. Jeremy Shaw, the park manager, stood up on a tailgate with a microphone and gave a speech about how the Roundup would work and what to expect, and most importantly, how to stay safe.
Bison Aren’t Like Cattle At All!
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever worked cattle,” he said. Many hands went up, most of the gathered crowd. “Alright, forget everything you’ve ever known about working cattle. Bison aren’t like cattle at all.” He continued, describing how bison cannot be forced, but rather coaxed, to move. “Bison are easy to move,” he said, “in the direction they want to go.” We were told that the best way to upset the bison was to push them too hard, try to herd them too fast, and especially during the final push, this could make or break the Roundup.
Upon arrival, each group of riders had been asked if we wanted to ride up at the front or hang back and had then been assigned a color team. The green team would ride on the left flank, which would go up the hill towards the Island’s spine, should the bison move that way. The red team would ride near the edge of the water, and the blue team would ride in the middle. Anyone wishing to move slower could bring up the rear, filling in gaps between teams as needed. Shaw and his team outlined how the day would go, and then said a short prayer for the safety of the riders and horses.
300 Horses and Riders
Excitement and apprehension mingled in the chilly morning air as 300 horses and riders gathered, far more than I’ve ever ridden with at once. Surprisingly, most of the horses were calm – these are ranch horses, and this was just another day at work for them. We gathered into our designated teams and then all headed out at once, packed close at first and then fanning out in the tall prairie grass.
We rode for a couple of miles before coming across the first herd. At this point, as first-timers, we weren’t anywhere near the front, and we were partly up the hillside between the green team on the left flank and the blue team in the middle, so we had a panoramic view of the bison, the wide fan of riders, and the mountains across the water. From a distance, we watched as individual riders would dart out towards the herd, cracking the bullwhip, to encourage the slower-moving bison, and every now and then a bison or two or a dozen would break off from the herd and try to make a run for it, and a group of riders would have to divert and try to convince them to rejoin the group.
Beware Of The Bulls
The bulls were easy to spot amongst the herd, looming even larger than the already-large cows. These were the most likely to turn and charge, or run off, and the park policy was to leave them to it. These mature bulls are already vaccinated and they survive just fine on their own through the winter, grouping into bachelor herds until they can rejoin their cows in the spring. In the holding pens they just cause trouble with one another, like teenage boys (like we had witnessed when we arrived) picking fights.
While the hillside offered us an unbeatable bird’s eye view, it was hard going, with rocks and boulders to scramble over, many of which were hidden in the tall grass. Derry’s horse stumbled over a rock and came up lame and we took a moment to dismount and evaluate, not wanting to leave her behind. After a few minutes he seemed fine and we all mounted back up, but were surprised how much ground the bison had covered in the small amount of time we hadn’t been paying attention.
The Hardest Part of the Bison Roundup
The hardest part of the Roundup, for both the bison and the horses, is known as Heartbreak Hill, the point where the bison are driven over the spine of the Island. At this point, different herds which have been herded by different groups all come together, like streams into a river, and we let them rest while the riders sit by and eat the sandwiches we have stashed in our saddlebags. After lunch, we resume the ride, bringing the bison around a sharp corner and then we are in the final stretch.
And The Final Push
The final push – the hillside rising steeply on our right, and the Great Salt Lake spreading vast and blue to our left. The herd was almost 800 strong now, kicking up dust as they went, and we had gotten much closer to them than we had started out. As we neared the gate into the pens, we could barely see the bison through the dust, just a few hooves and tails here and there.
Suddenly, riders were coming straight at us out of the dust. “Go, Go! Go!” they yelled as they galloped past, and looking into the dust cloud where tails had been, we now saw eyes. And horns. Wendy and Erik took off. Earlier in the ride when we had cantered a little bit, Derry’s new horse had gotten a little rambunctious, and I didn’t want to take off and leave her behind, fearing her horse might blow up. A few bison darted on each side of us, parting the herd like river rocks, and then we moved towards the fence.
A Bit of Chaos
It was complete chaos for a few minutes – the few dozen bison who had turned had gotten past the front riders, and the rear riders were categorically those who didn’t want to get too close, didn’t have whips, and were unsure how to get the bison back on track. It is incredible how fast they move, and how much ground they can cover. In just a few seconds, some of them were way up the hill and some were all the way out in the salt flats, skirting the last of the riders and on their way to freedom.
We regrouped and continued pushing the remaining bison towards the pens. Riders from the red, green, and blue teams yelled at each other in disagreement.
“Keep moving them! We don’t want them to stop and follow the ones who got away!”
“Stop shouting! If you keep putting pressure on them, they’re going to turn again!”
“You’re the one shouting!”
Once the first bison crossed the threshold of the gate, the rest easily followed. Somewhere in the confusion I lost my favorite jacket, a nice oilskin slicker that had been tied to the back of my saddle. We spotted several hats that riders had lost in the mêlée (that’s why you need a string!) and we had a long wait while Erik caught a ride back to the campground to get the trailer. Some riders opted to ride back, but after the 15 miles ride, our horses had had enough.
Back at the campground, untacked, fed, and watered, our horses settled in for the night as the sun set behind the ridge and we headed to the Fielding Garr Ranch for a chili dinner hosted by the park management in the historic barn. We recounted and relived the highlights of the day, exchanged numbers and emails with all our new friends, and promised to see one another back here again, same time next year.
The Adventure is Just Beginning
The next morning, we woke up to snow flurries and were thankful not to have to go round up the sixty head or so of bison who evaded us. We couldn’t, however, get back across the mountain passes to Colorado in a snow storm, so instead we headed south towards Moab, the adventure just beginning.
You want to see how Adrienne experienced the ride? Watch this video of her at the bison roundup on Antelope Island in Utah:
Adrienne is a regular contributor for Equestrian Adventuresses. Make sure you check out her other articles.