ANTELOPE ISLAND Instructions were simple enough: Watch the tail. If it comes up, stop, turn and slowly ride away. Otherwise, stay in the saddle and herd the buffalo to their annual physical.
Roughly 150 riders gathered at the Fielding Garr Ranch on the eastern shores of Antelope Island a few weeks ago. It was the start of the annual buffalo roundup.
Once a year, the island buffalo, about 750 head, are pushed from their grazing areas to the holding corrals on the northern tip of the island.
The work was once done by helicopter, and horses and riders were simply there to pick up stragglers. Three years ago, the helicopters were grounded and the entire roundup was put in the hands of the wranglers.
Once corralled, the buffalo rested, fed on fresh-cut hay and then patiently waited for the doctors to make their island call.
It took three days to round up most of the buffalo. The larger bulls, because of their weight upwards of 1,800 pounds and temperament, for the most part, were left alone.
Then, for a week, they rested.
Over the final four days, the buffalo were cut into small groups and pushed into a long chute, which eventually led to the ultimate "hugging" machine mechanical arms that closed in around the buffalo and held them firm while veterinarians, where called for, drew blood, gave vaccinations and checked for pregnancy in cows.
More than 200 calves were born on the island last year, which is by all accounts a high birth rate for a free-roaming herd.
What vets found, as expected, is that the island herd is in good shape.
"Even their parasite count was low this year," said Steve Bates, island biologist for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, overseers of the island.
"Some years it's low. This is one of those years."
Each of the resident bison has a chip embedded behind the ear that, when scanned, gives a complete medical history. Some of the new calves were given chips to begin their medical background.
The island can comfortably hold a bison population of around 500 animals. To keep within that range, some animals are cut out and sold at auction. Money raised is used to improve things like habitat for wildlife.
Island bison have, in recent years, become popular with bidders, which has not always been the case.
"A few years ago, the market crashed," recalled Bates. "There had not been a meat market established at the time. I started beating on doors. I knew people here in Utah put a lot of meat in the freezer, so I started marketing to individuals. That's where a lot of the buffalo go now."
Buffalo sell for about $1 per pound, "which brings us, on average, about $1,100 per animal, which is very similar to beef."
Many people prefer buffalo meat to beef because, along with being very tasty, it is much lower in cholesterol than beef.
Island buffalo have one additional reason why they are popular with some buyers. It has been discovered that they have an extra allele in their genetic makeup. Some buffalo ranchers buy the island bison for that reason.
Exactly what that means, said Bates, "we're not sure.
"I'm working with a professor from Texas A&M, who maps the genetic history of buffalo. We'll get together next year and try to determine exactly what that extra allele means."
Those buffalo that were not sold were released back onto their open range.
The island buffalo are not all descendents of the original herd planted on the island around the turn of the century.
When the DPR took over ownership of the island in 1981, the buffalo were stunted because of the lack of a new genetic pool. To help the herd, larger bulls were introduced.
In 1990, five buffalo from Nebraska and four from Montana were released into the herd. Over the following years the average size of the island herd began to increase.
Even now, said Bates, new bloodlines are being brought to the island.In some cases, trades are made for young bull calves. The latest inductees came from Custer State Park in South Dakota. When they mature, they will help to guarantee the future of the Antelope Island buffalo.