ANTELOPE ISLAND, Utah (ABC4) – Antelope Island State Park is welcoming 200 bison calves this month. This brings the total bison population on the island up to about 700. The bison have a long history at the park and the new calves are direct descendants of the small herd that was reintroduced to the area more than 100 years ago.
Antelope Island is known for its views of the Great Salt Lake, its diverse bird population and its herd of bison.
“They are indigenous to the area,” Steven Bates told ABC4. Bates is a wildlife biologist at Antelope Island State Park. He has studied the bison on the island for more than two decades. He explained that Utah is about as far west as bison are naturally found in the United States.
“Chief Wanship, in his communications with the early pioneers, mentioned that the bison would come onto the island periodically when the lake levels were low like they are now,” stated Bates. The stories passed to the pioneers serve as historical record that bison once flourished in the area. However, by the time the pioneers arrived in Utah, the bison population had been decimated and essentially no longer existed in the area.
According to Utah Division of Natural Resources (DNR) State Parks website: “12 bison (were) purchased on January 7 (1893) from William Glassman by White and Dooly and brought to the island by Frary and Walker in February.”
“This essentially turned into a conservation herd,” added Bates.
According to Utah DNR, by 1911, the herd had grown to about 100 bison. At that time, it was one of the largest herds in the country. Bates added: “That’s where this herd originated from. They were the founding animals for this population.”
Bates explained to ABC4 that (usually) during the first week of April, the herd’s cows give birth. This year was no different. Around 200 new calves were born on the island. However, Bates said the island is too small to sustain a herd that large. This isn’t anything new. Park officials work to keep the herd to about 500 bison. In about six months, the annual bison roundup will take place and 200 animals (the majority being young calves) will be sold in an auction.
People from around the state, county and world visit Antelope Island State Park. In fact, the park now hosts more than one million people annually. Many of the visitors come to see the bison. “It is fun to watch the awe of those individuals who, you know, it may be their first time seeing a bison,” Bates said.
With 200 calves that are only around two weeks old and as cute as can be, an influx of visitors is likely in the coming days. Bates stressed the need for all visitors to pay attention to the many signs across the park. Bison are wonderful to look at but should not be approached under any circumstances. Currently, the herd is especially wary of people as the cows protect their young. “Go by the rule of thumb,” stated Bates. “If you stick your thumb out there and you can still see bison, you’re too close. On an individual bison.” In other words, if your thumb does not completely cover a single bison in the distance, you’re not distant enough from the animal.