ANTELOPE ISLAND — The 30 bison bulls emphatically exhale miniature clouds into the wintry air with every breath on a recent morning. It's probably the last Saturday any of them will live to see. Each occupies his own 10-by-25-foot pen, but most of the beasts stand perfectly still.
Weighing in at 1,650 pounds, Bison No. 230 maintains a raised tail in an unmistakable display of agitation and aggressively paws the ground if anyone enters his direct line of sight. Across the aisle, Bison No. 217 slowly paces the perimeter of his pen.
A temporary tent is erected nearby especially for this, the sixth annual Antelope Island Bison Auction, on Nov. 13. From inside the tent an auctioneer's rapid-fire delivery emerges as one endless, indistinguishable stream of speech.
When the dust settles and the auctioneer finally falls silent near noon, the 196 animals have collectively fetched nearly $300,000. The average price this year for a 2-year-old bull is $2,002 — more than double the $818 a bull went for at this same auction just five years ago.
Call it a comeback: bison are booming like never before since staving off extinction at the end of the 19th century.
Historians estimate the North American bison population once numbered as high as 30 million. But after the Civil War ended and while the Transcontinental Railroad was being built, buffalo began to be slaughtered in droves for their tongues and hides, the rest of the carcass often left to rot in the sun. During the 25-year period beginning in 1870, the bison population plummeted from tens of millions to a measly 800 head.
Today the North American bison population numbers approximately 450,000. Ninety-five percent of those animals reside in privately owned herds, part of an industry made possible by the growing demand for bison meat.
"In a lot of places in the country, grocery stores carry at least ground bison and the higher-end stores carry more of a selection in the fresh-meat case," said Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association, based in Westminster, Colo. "It's a lot more available than it was even five years ago. As more restaurants put it on their menu and consumers demand it more, it ends up on the grocery shelves."
Federal law prohibits the use of growth hormone on bison. They grow up eating range grass, and it takes the bison longer to reach their mature weight than other commercial meat sources such as beef, poultry or pork.
The appeal of bison meat is significantly health-driven. Bison literally live out on the range, eating only grass, while cattle spend a good chunk of their lives in feed lots, eating corn. A study by North Dakota State University indicates that a single serving of bison contains 143 calories and 2.4 grams of fat while the same portion of top-grade beef clocks in with 201 calories and 8.1 grams of fat.
"As more consumers learn about the many qualities of bison meat being a very nutrient-dense and lean protein source, it's becoming more popular," Matheson said. "As a result we've seen consumer demand pick up over the past 10 years quite significantly."
In 1893, William Glassman and John Dooly introduced 12 bison — four bulls, four cows and four calves — into the Antelope Island ecosystem. At the time, the dozen animals represented approximately 1 percent of the entire North American bison population.
With naturally thick coats to insulate them from the harsh winds that roll off the Great Salt Lake, the hardy bison quickly took to their new island home. The herd now numbers around 500 head. To keep the population at a consistent level, new births necessitate that nearly 200 bison are annually sold off at auction.
In 2005, Antelope Island wildlife range manager Steve Bates turned the annual bison auction into a live affair, auctioneer and all. Under the previous auction format of field bids, bidders purchased animals sight unseen based only on age and gender. But after receiving the bison, buyers often complained of cosmetic or physical imperfections.
A big beneficiary of the rising prices for bison meat is Antelope Island's wildlife program, which leans heavily on bison proceeds for funding.
"(Bison sales) fund the wildlife program up here," Bates said. "We do our restorations, our seedings, our water development and (maintaining) the facilities for processing bison — that's how it's being funded. Our budget is based on the (bison) sales figures, so it's hard to predict what the exact budget is from year to year."
Several Utah families that had grown accustomed to descending on Antelope Island every November, buying a bison and freezing its meat to consume throughout the year can no longer afford to do so. This year, out-of-state bulk buyers descended on the event and snapped up most of the animals while also driving up prices even on the ones they didn't purchase.
"We had buyers out of Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, Washington and I think Oregon," Bates said. "A lot of the local people who were at the auction, they didn't buy anything."
Antelope Island's size and topography restrict the size of its bison herd (Bates wants to keep it under 550 head), but no cap is rapidly approaching for how many bison the U.S. and Canada can carry. While human presence is too pervasive for North America's bison population to ever be what it was 200 years ago, Matheson thinks the same land that once sustained tens of millions buffalo is still capable of supporting many multiples of the nearly half-million bison currently roaming the golden plains.
"We're not particularly trying to feed the masses with bison," he said. "But we do want to keep bringing this animal back to the American landscape."