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Riding herd in Utah, big time

ANTELOPE ISLAND, Utah — "How do you move a 2,000-pound bison?" a rider on a horse next to me asked. The punch line to this joke: "You don't."

Buffaloes don't herd easily. If pushed too fast, they lower their heads and charge at anyone dumb enough to get in the way.

But that is exactly what we were trying to do — about 150 riders as we trotted across a flat field on Antelope Island in the middle of Utah's Great Salt Lake. Ahead of us, a herd of about 250 bison — a woolly, snorting blanket of black shoulders and rising dust — shuffled toward the corrals on the north end of the island. To move the animals, riders whooped like warriors. One rider snapped a bullwhip.

In all the commotion, at least eight riders were thrown to the ground, and one suffered a broken wrist.

Still, that's the kind of excitement that draws riders to the annual Bison Roundup on Antelope Island, one of the country's few buffalo roundups that allow untrained volunteers to herd these surly 1-ton creatures.

At other roundups — the most famous takes place every September at Custer State Park in South Dakota — visitors stand behind fences as professional cowboys do the hard work. But on Antelope Island each fall, any adult with a horse and the $25 admission fee can help herd bison into corrals.

As a kid, I fell in love with the movie "Bless the Beasts and the Children," about a group of misfit boys who sneak away from summer camp to save a herd of buffaloes from certain death during a "canned" hunt. Since then, I've been mesmerized by the sight of brawny bison rumbling across open fields — a timeless image, like thunder clouds forming or whales breaching the surface of the sea.

I thought I was alone in my buffalo fascination until I arrived on this 28,000-acre island in mid-October and watched a stream of pickup trucks, horse trailers and RVs roll onto a grass field. Some of these fellow bison fanatics traveled as many as 600 miles to spend three days enduring freezing temperatures, choking dust clouds and sore keisters to marvel at this iconic symbol of the American West.

Even Buffalo Bill Cody had a soft spot for these beasts.

Cody, an Army scout and Pony Express rider, killed thousands of bison to provide meat for workers on America's expanding railroads in the mid-1800s.

Back then, millions of buffalo roamed the plains from Mexico to Canada — so many that the pounding of their feet echoed like rolling thunder. When herds crossed railroad tracks, trains were delayed for up to half a day. The railroad companies responded by allowing passengers to shoot the buffaloes from the rail cars.

"The moving multitude ... darkened the whole plains," wrote Meriwether Lewis, who along with William Clark encountered a herd at South Dakota's White River in 1806.

But in a few short decades, American Indians, hunters such as Cody and others slaughtered so many buffaloes that the once-thriving herds dwindled to only 800 animals. Shamed at the widespread massacre, Cody later joined efforts to preserve the namesake animal he became famous for hunting.

Eventually, preservation efforts rescued the bison from the brink of extinction. Today, about half a million bison roam public and private lands; the biggest herd, about 4,000 bison, grazes in Yellowstone National Park. (The terms "bison" and "buffalo" are used interchangeably, although biologists note that the American bison is only distantly related to the water buffalo and African buffalo.)

Antelope Island's bison are descendants of a dozen buffaloes brought by barge by ranchers William Glassman and John Dooly in 1893. With plenty of grazing land and spring water, the bison thrived.

When the state took over the island, park officials invited the public to take part in the annual roundup. Each year, for the past 22 years, the bison are herded into pens so veterinarians can perform medical tests, administer vaccinations, collect blood and check the cows and heifers for pregnancies. To ensure the population does not exceed the island's food supply, some are sold at auctions.

The state also sells a handful of hunting permits — about six — to cull the older bulls that are too ornery to herd or put in trailers.

For the roundup's first 19 years, state park officials relied heavily on helicopters to herd the bison. But the helicopters put too much stress on the bison, so in 2005 officials turned the roundup reins over to volunteer riders.

The night before the roundup, I shivered in a tiny tent on a lumpy grass field near Fielding Garr Ranch, the horse rental concession on the south end of the island.

Before I arrived, Utah state park officials told me most bison wranglers camp on the island during the three-day event. Clearly, I didn't understand their definition of "camping."

As I pitched my tent, I watched a caravan of expensive RVs, campers and trailers roll onto the island to form a makeshift village. That night I listened to the rumble of gas generators and neighing horses.

The roundup began early the next morning with a mandatory briefing. An assistant park ranger warned us that bison are not as docile as their bovine cousins. When buffaloes get angry, they lift their tails straight up and charge.

Among the island's bison, the ranger told us, are several lone bulls — mean, stubborn beasts that won't associate with the herd. Those rebels that aren't corralled on the first two days will be herded later by helicopter. At the end of the briefing, each rider signed a liability waiver, an indication of what was to come.

Atop my rented steed, I followed other riders to an open field where about 250 bison had been grazing.

The riders formed a semicircle about half a mile long and advanced on the bison, herding them north. The experienced riders took the lead, riding only a few yards from the trotting animals. I stayed back and watched them move without protest. The sky was crystalline blue, and the breath from the animals dissipated like steam in the chilly morning air.

For several miles, I rode alongside Massie Tillman, a retired federal judge from Fort Worth, Texas, who learned about the roundup during a previous visit to the island. Like Tillman, I was awestruck by the assembly of hulking, wedge-shaped animals.

"The most overused adjective in the English language is 'awesome,' " Tillman said as we rode. "But there is no other way to describe this."

Up to that point, the ride was easy. Maybe too easy.

Within an hour, the bison began to rebel. Every few minutes, a random buffalo charged out of the herd, apparently frustrated by being pushed too far, too fast. Horses and riders dodged the horned attacks in a cloud of dust.

The lead riders continued to whoop and holler. A bullwhip cracked like a rifle.

Amid the commotion, I saw an ambulance, its cherry-top lights flashing, speed along a road in the distance. I learned later that several riders had been thrown from their horses and one had broken a wrist.

The ambulance took the injured rider away via a causeway on the north end of the island.

After about two hours of riding, we gave the herd a much-needed break at a watering trough. This is where I got my first close look at Antelope Island's bison. These were plains bison, the shorter relative of the wood bison. Still, I marveled at the sheer size. The males weigh up to 2,100 pounds and stand as tall as 6 feet at the shoulders, lumpy mounds of muscle covered in black woolly fur. The heads were enormous but the torsos ended in narrow, almost delicate, hips. The calves stayed close to the adults, never straying from the protection of the herd.

When the break ended, we mounted up and pushed the herd over the ridgeline that bisects the island like a spine. Once we cleared the crest, our herd trotted downhill, joining up with bison that had been grazing on the other side.

Now our herd numbered nearly 600 — a rolling expanse of dust and black humpbacks. The scene couldn't compare to the one Lewis and Clark encountered but, for a greenhorn city slicker like me, it was truly, well, awesome.

Our final destination lay at the bottom of the hill: a large corral and several stalls.

The buffaloes sped down the mountainside, with our horses trotting to keep up. But when the herd reached the open gates, the bison stopped cold. They wouldn't enter the corrals, unwilling to exchange free-range grazing for fences and gates. We shouted. The bullwhip cracked, but the bison wouldn't budge.

The standoff lasted several minutes until a few reluctant buffaloes marched through the gates and the rest followed.

Once the gates slammed shut, the riders celebrated with shouts of glee. It had taken us about four hours to move the bison more than 15 miles.

We were saddle-sore, hungry and thirsty. I accepted an invitation to join several other wranglers who were riding to a small concession restaurant on the north end of the island.

"What's for lunch?" I asked.

"Buffalo burgers," came the reply.

When the sun set that night, the Utah sky glowed with the colors of vanilla and strawberry ice cream.

I wandered through the trailer village, watching my fellow wranglers as they prepared hamburgers and chili on barbecue grills and gas stoves.

Blanche Smith and Trena Andolsek, two friends from a nearby Utah suburb, tried to stay warm by a campfire. They had attended roundups in the 1990s but were turned off by the use of helicopters to herd the bison. The old-school method — volunteers on horseback — was a much better experience, they told me.

"I don't know what it is," Smith said. "It's something about seeing all of those buffaloes together. It's just amazing."

At the next morning briefing, we were told that about a dozen bison still roamed the island. We would split up into small groups and track them down. A helicopter would search out any buffaloes we could not find.

I joined a group of about six riders and we followed dirt trails over the mountain to the island's western slopes.

For hours we rode in the warm sun, the Great Salt Lake shimmering in the distance. We spotted several antelope but no bison until we took a break in the shade of several low-hanging juniper trees.

As we rested, we noticed something bulky and black under a tree about 50 yards away. The shadow moved, and we could make out the shape of a large bull, more than 6 feet tall, with horns that curled upward.

As I got off my horse and walked toward it, the bull trotted away until it reached the crest of a nearby hill. Then, as I raised my camera to my eye, it turned toward me, its huge frame silhouetted by the cornflower blue waters of the Great Salt Lake.

We mounted up and the bull disappeared over the crest.

No one suggested herding that bison back to the corrals. We could tell by the look in its eyes that it wouldn't easily be fenced in. Maybe the helicopter would find it later, or maybe it would just run free until we return next year.