Take 300 cowboys and cowgirls, add another 300 horses, then throw in roughly 775 head of thundering bison, and what have you got?
You’ve got yourself the makings of a rip-roarin’ — and rare — event here in Utah.
The much-anticipated Bison Roundup returns to Antelope Island State Park over the next three weekends, bringing with it a unique Western experience.
Jeremy Shaw, park manager, said the annual roundup is the most anticipated event of the year, attracting between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors to the island each fall.
“I would say it is the most popular event that we’ve got on the island,” Shaw said.
The roundup has a practical reason, beyond giving spectators a chance to see the magnificent animals herded into one place and giving participants a chance to show off their mad cowboy skills. Organizers say the annual collection of all the bison on the island allows managers to monitor and ensure the continued health and safety of one of the country’s oldest and largest public bison herds.
The bison roundup takes place over three consecutive weekends and is divided into three distinct operations — “The Push,” “The Working,” and “The Auction.”
The yearly bison roundup starts with what organizers call “the push,” taking place on Saturday, Oct. 26.
“The push is the actual roundup of the bison,” Shaw said. “It begins at 9 a.m. and goes until we catch them all — three or four hours, at least.”
Shaw says that on rare occasions The Push will spill over into the next day, but “99% of the time” it’s completed on the same day.
That morning, about 300 riders on horseback — a number that includes 50 hired hands and 250 members of the public — will fan out and push the bison into small herds before driving them into a holding corral where the animals will rest for five days. That rest period is designed to reduce the animals’ stress levels and make them easier to work with when they advance to “The Working” the next weekend.
The Push is the most popular of all the events, according to Shaw, drawing the most spectators.
For adventurous types, visitors can take part in the roundup, although registration has already closed for this year’s participants. For the rest of us, the bison roundup offers opportunities to watch the roundup unfold.
Riders start at Fielding Garr Ranch, on the southeast side of the island, so Shaw says there are excellent viewing opportunities north of the ranch, along the east-side road on the island.
“You can just watch them from your vehicle,” he said. “But don’t get out of your vehicle.”
Another good place to view the bison is on the north end of the island, near the corrals.
“That’s an excellent spot,” Shaw said. “We’ll set up an expo area with food vendors, etc., and put an 8-foot-tall fence between the people and the animals.”
The following weekend, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, the bison will be worked through chutes where they’ll undergo a health check, receive any necessary inoculations, get updated RFID tags, and be sorted for public sale.
Shaw said they’ll work the bison from “sunup to sundown” that weekend — basically, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. those first two days — but finish up by about 1 p.m. on Nov. 2.
“So if you decide to drop by on that Saturday, come earlier rather than later,” he warned.
Shaw said that second weekend won’t have the spectacle of herding bison across the island, but it will allow an up-close look at the animals and what goes into keeping them healthy.
“If you’re more into the science and why we do what we do — the inner workings of it all — that’s the best time to come,” Shaw said.
On Nov. 9, the final weekend of the roundup, the live public auction will take place.
One of the purposes of the roundup is to sell off the annual surplus of bison on the island. With a couple hundred calves born each year, a certain number need to be removed to keep the herd at a manageable 500 to 550 head of bison.
“The whole goal is to manage the numbers on the island — manage for watchable wildlife,” Shaw said. “In a good forage year, we’ll sell fewer, in a rough year we’ll sell more off.”
Right now, there are about 775 bison on Antelope Island. Based on the amount of forage available going into the coming winter, Shaw estimates they’ll auction off about 215 bison at this year’s event.
Shaw admits the auction is the least popular event out of the three weekends of the roundup.
“There’s probably the least for visitors to see, as basically it’s a livestock auction,” he said.
However, if you’ve ever wanted to own your own bison, this might be a good weekend to visit the island. Shaw says they usually have between 30 and 40 buyers at the auction — “everybody from mom and pop who want to put one in the freezer, to big feed lots, to hunting outfits who buy them to put on their land for a hunt.”
Shaw said anyone can participate in the auction; contact the park for details.
All three weekends are open to the public and are free of charge. There is a state park entrance fee of $10 per vehicle.
For more information, call 801-773-2941.