Bison Return to the Book Cliffs

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14 bison reintroduced to eastern Utah Book Cliffs

Five bison roam their new home on the Book Cliffs - Photo by Ron StewartAs 14 bison ran for freedom, there were plenty of smiles on the faces of those who watched. After a long absence, bison are roaming on public lands in the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah.

This Aug. 30 reintroduction, plus another 30 bison scheduled for release later this year, are the start of a new free roaming herd in Utah.

The journey for this first group of bison started early on Aug. 26. That’s when helicopter pilots working for the Ute Tribe Fish and Game (UTFG) lifted off a ridge in the Hill Creek Extension and began herding bison into a trapping and sorting facility. As the day progressed, many bison, some in small herds and others with their families, were pushed towards the trap. None of them wanted to go, but by the time the day ended, more than 200 of them were standing in the corrals.

“The Hill Creek bison roundup is a yearly event,” explained Karen Corts, wildlife biologist working with the UTFG. “We’ve been doing it for about 10 years now to monitor the health of the herd.”

There was a new twist this time, however: the roundup was being watched by a handful of biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). Some of the bison that were in the pens that night would start a new herd on public lands in the Book Cliffs.

The following day, the DWR biologists helped the UTFG crews sort through the herd.

“We herd the bison out of the main corrals and into chutes where each animal can be handled individually,” Corts said. “We record the age and weight of each animal. Then the state veterinarian looks at its health, takes blood samples and checks for diseases, such as brucellosis. Our herd has remained disease free.”

As each animal passed its health inspection, it was given ear tags and released back into the wilds of Hill Creek. All but a few, that is. Nine females and six males, all but one of them yearlings, were selected to take a different journey.

Bison at Hill Creek - Photo by Ron Stewart“We offered them a few more [than that],” said Carlos Reed, director of the UTFG. “We feel returning bison to public lands in the Book Cliffs is a good thing. We’ve been helping the state any way we can.”

“We’ve appreciated the help we’ve received from the Ute Tribe, and we wish we could have taken more bison. But our management plan called for only 15 bison from the Ute Tribe this year,” said Charlie Greenwood, regional wildlife manager for the DWR.

“The tribe was extremely helpful,” Greenwood said. “They have not only provided bison, they also arranged a tour of their lands and shared their knowledge of managing bison in the Book Cliffs with us.”

The 15 bison that were selected by the biologists were given additional disease tests and a different color ear tag. Radio collars were also placed on a few of them. Then they were loaded into trailers and transported to a new set of corrals where they waited in quarantine for 72 hours. Sadly, one of the bison was gored during the trip and didn’t survive.

On the morning of Aug. 30, after the state veterinarian had declared the entire group of 14 bison disease-free, Greenwood gave the go-ahead to load them back into the trailers.

“We’re being extra careful with disease testing,” Greenwood said. “Any bison we reintroduce in the future will also receive extra disease testing, even though they’re coming from a herd that was testing disease free.”

Eight long hours later, while standing in the cool green hills of the Bogart Canyon area of the Book Cliffs, Greenwood asked Dave Olsen to do the honors and release the first group of bison.

“Dave has worked longer and harder on this than anyone,” Greenwood said. “With those 14 bison, we begin a new story: bison roaming free on public lands in the Book Cliffs.”

Note: The Aug. 30 transplant is considered a reintroduction as there is ample evidence that bison roamed freely in the northeastern corner of Utah, including both the road and roadless areas of the Book Cliffs. Besides the verbal stories that have been handed down, hard evidence includes Native American rock art on canyon walls and bison skulls, several of which have been found in the Book Cliffs. Early explorers, like Father Escalante, also recorded seeing or killing bison as a food source while crossing the Uinta Basin.