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Wanted: Bison Herders for an Annual Roundup in Utah. Tenderfoots Welcome.

Published: 10/25/2015
By Julie Turkewitz, The New York Times -- ANTELOPE ISLAND, Utah — The morning sky had turned to pink and it was to time to saddle up, so Benedikt Preisler, 59, strode across this grassy island to make use of the riding boots and cowboy hat he had bought the day before. “The outfit,” said Mr. Preisler, a German tourist standing in a sea of 10-gallon hats, “is necessary.”

It was the annual Antelope Island bison roundup, a Utah tradition that brings together seasoned cowboys and wide-eyed neophytes for a weekend of Western romance. Participants camp out on this island in the Great Salt Lake and spend a day on horseback chasing hundreds of bison toward corrals, where the animals are given vaccinations and about 200 are readied for sale. (The auctioned animals later become burgers, steaks and jerky.)

The event attracts local ranchers toting well-worn bullwhips as well as urban desk workers craving respite from the tyranny of the computer. For some, it is the only opportunity to interact with bison — those iconic, furry, fast-moving ungulates that are often called American buffalo and once numbered in the tens of millions before they were decimated by early settlers.

“I’m a surgeon — it’s very boring compared to this,” said Paul Olive, 57, who drove 1,300 miles from Springfield, Mo., for the event. “It is an adrenaline rush to be on a horse, chasing a wild buffalo. Because it can be very dangerous.”

Antelope Island is a rugged, salt-ringed expanse just an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, and its eastern shore faces the city’s twinkling skyline. The island’s bison are the descendants of 12 animals transported by boat to the island in 1893 by frontiersmen who sought to protect a few of the endangered animals — and turn a profit — by creating a hunting reserve for the wealthy. By 1926, it cost $300 to shoot one of the animals — the equivalent of about $4,000 today.

Today, about 775 bison are on the island, making them one of the oldest and largest publicly owned bison herds in the nation. And the island is now a state park teeming with native creatures, including pronghorn antelope.

Park rangers began the roundup and auction in 1986 to ensure that the animals did not overrun the island. Pulling a move from Tom Sawyer, officials billed the task as entertainment, and began inviting the public to help.