Our Own American Icon
By Norman McKee
Early in the 1800s, an estimated 30 to 60 million American Bison roamed the Great Plains and valleys of Western North America. By 1900, these wild icons of America had been eliminated from nearly all of their original habitats. Yellowstone National Park harbored most of the remaining animals in the United States.
Several attempts during the last hundred years were made to capture a few bison and release them in various states in an effort to re-establish viable populations of these unique animals. However, most of these releases were made on large private ranches. In many cases, they were intentionally co-mingled with cattle in an attempt to breed them with the cows.
In 1941, 18 bison were captured in Yellowstone National Park and released on the desert in the Robbers Roost area of Wayne County. Several of the bulls wandered off, so the next year, five additional bulls were added to the small herd. The 23 head were the total animals ever released into this new area. By late 1942, the bison herd had crossed the Dirty Devil River onto the Burr Desert. They remained in that area until 1963, when they moved again onto the Henry Mountains of Garfield and Wayne Counties. This is a very unique area for bison, ranging from 4,800 feet to the 11,500 foot Mt. Ellen.
Over the years, the Henry Mountains herd has done well enough that a very popular hunt is held each fall to harvest the excess animals and keep the herd at a target population of approximately 350 animals. Permits for this hunt are eagerly sought by many Utah sportsmen. It is touted as the largest, of perhaps only three or four at most, free-roaming wild populations that are hunted in the United States.
Recently, scientists from Utah State and Texas A & M Universities have shown that the Henry Mountains bison herd is one of only a few populations in the United States that is still a genetically pure population. Even though the free-roaming herd has mingled with cattle that also graze the area, researchers have concluded that bison don’t breed with cows unless they are placed with them in confinement. This has been done by some ranchers in hopes of creating a crossbreed that would be rugged like a bison, but with a cow’s more docile nature.
The study also showed that the Henry Mountains herd is free of a bacterial disease called brucellosis, which has affected several other herds, including some animals in the Yellowstone bison population. This information, and the fact they have a pure DNA, is really important as efforts are made to re-establish bison back to other parts of their historic rangelands. Bison and cattle are more competitive for vegetative habitat than are most wildlife herbivores, such as deer, elk and pronghorns.
However, the bison’s presence on the Henry’s has created leverage and funding for vegetation restoration and enhancement projects on over 50,000 acres that may not have happened without them. Additional future projects are also planned. Thus, everyone wins, ranchers, wildlife enthusiasts, and of course, a more productive and healthy rangeland environment.
In recent years, bison have been trapped from the Henry Mountains herd and released on the Book Cliffs area in eastern Utah. Another wild herd, though not genetically pure, is located on Antelope Island State Park in the Great Salt Lake.
All other bison in Utah are owned privately and are on private ranches and properties, as are the very visible herd on the Zion Mountain Resort, just east of Zion National Park in Kane County.
However, the Henry Mountain bison of Garfield and Wayne Counties is considered the premier wild-ranging population in the United States on accessible public lands. A visit to our remote and wild Henry Mountains is a very unique experience!