Bison have a new home

January 14, 2009 5:25:01 AM PST
For the first time in nearly 70 years, Utah has a new free-roaming bison herd.

State officials this week are taking the final steps toward restoring bison to the Book Cliffs, a remote and rugged area in eastern Utah where bison images appear on ancient rock art and skulls have been found in the fossil records.

"We're bringing them back to their native range," said Dax Magnus, a wildlife biologist for the state Division of Wildlife Resources.

Eventually, state officials expect the Book Cliffs herd to grow to around 450. That would make Utah - which already has one herd managed by an American Indian tribe and two herds controlled by the state - among the West's leaders in the number of wild bison roaming within its borders.

"It's a neat opportunity to have kind of an icon of the American West" expanding on Utah's publicly managed lands, said Dave Olsen of the wildlife division, who oversaw a plan approved in 2007 to bring bison to the Book Cliffs.

On Saturday and Sunday, crews in a helicopter and an airplane captured 31 bison from the Henry Mountains in southeastern Utah. The bison were trucked to Antelope Island State Park in the middle of the Great Salt Lake.

The park, which has about 500 bison of its own, provided a series of chutes and corrals where the bison could be sorted and checked for disease before heading for the Book Cliffs.

Magnus was one of about 20 state employees who spent much of Tuesday at Antelope Island getting the animals ready for the trip.

They've been tested for diseases such as brucellosis and tuberculosis and have a clean health record, wildlife officials said. About a dozen were affixed with radio collars so the herd's movement can be tracked.

The bison, which have had minimal human contact, behaved as expected in the chutes, snorting, bucking and staring wide-eyed at anyone who approached. Domesticated, they're not.

But that's the idea, wildlife officials said. The project is intended to return an element of the wild back to Utah.

Bison, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, once roamed huge swaths of North America before being nearly wiped out in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

As bison numbers slowly rebounded in the West, some were brought to Antelope Island as part of a ranching operation. Today the herd numbers around 500 and is one of the main reasons why people visit, second only to views of the landscape, said Ron Taylor, the park's manager.

"It's a big draw," he said.

In 1941, 18 were taken from Yellowstone National Park and brought to the San Rafael Desert. The herd grew and eventually moved to the Henry Mountains, where today there are around 450.

Decades ago, state wildlife officials started talking about returning bison to the Book Cliffs.

The state, with contributions from several advocacy groups, paid $4 million for three ranches in the area and for the grazing rights on public lands. That has reduced the number of cattle that will share the land with the bison.

Some also worried that the bison could impede oil and gas development in the area. State officials agreed not to use bison as a way to limit mineral development.

When the bison arrive in the Book Cliffs on Wednesday and Thursday - after a seven-hour trailer ride - they'll have more than 1,300 square miles of state and federal land to roam. They'll join 14 bison brought out in August and hundreds on nearby tribal lands that are controlled by the Ute tribe.

Magnus said the area's remoteness and ample food supplies make it a perfect spot for bison.

"You're really about as far from civilization as you can get," Magnus said.


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