Wild bison of the Henry Mountains

by Jeff Durbin

IT MIGHT NOT be a bad biology riddle: what weighs three-quarters of a ton on average, lives at 10,000 feet in summer and 4000 feet in winter, and does whatever it pleases? Let's throw in more clues: the mountain range in question is five volcanic peaks overlooking some of the most spectacular eroded sediments in the world; the animal runs as fast as a horse and swims strongly. What else? Cactus grows low on the range, Douglas-fir up high. The animal is well-adapted to cold and snow, but here prefers a balmier semi-desert winter. It grazes shrubs and grasses. In historical times it was the centerpiece of national and regional economies.

Time's up. The animal answer is the bison; the mountain answer is the Henrys in southeast Utah, the last-named mountain range—1869, by John Wesley Powell—in the United States. If you were to go there in the fall, in, say, October, odds are that you wouldn't find the bison in the first place you looked. They could be wandering down from Mt. Pennell onto Cave Flat, or chewing cud in a clearing beneath a stand of ponderosa pine, or winding through the junipers on their way to water at Mud Spring.

Alternatively, the bison might already be working their winter-ground mesas for shadscale, Indian ricegrass and rabbitbrush, avoiding the prickly pear and fishhook cactus, scratching their hides on the cottonwoods along Pennel Creek. That is how I found part of the 450-strong contingent, in herds of 60 and 40 plus a freelance group of four.

The group of four was a bull-group, apparently with little interest in their herdmates now that rutting season was over. They were napping in a valley below the ridge where I walked, and my first impression was: wooly mammoths. The last bison I'd seen were in a zoo, and big though they must have been, their enclosure did not do them justice. Here in the treeless lower elevations of the Henrys, the entire drainage system—gullies, creeks, canyons—spread before me to the horizon, the landscape approaching the size of small eastern states, a setting that might be expected would dwarf any animal, the bison looked as if they belonged, and therefore looked their proper size.

That size appeared to be about 1800 pounds, and with an herbivore metabolism at such a weight, life revolves around grazing. The rut is well over by mid-October, and the bison need to gain back lost weight; the rutting season taxes them both physically and mentally. Now there is little interaction among herdmates. I do observe one incident, however: one of the four bulls turns and steps toward another, not menacingly, but coming within inches. The response is immediate and flashing-quick, a spin and lunge toward the instigator, who just as quickly backs away. Then they both continue grazing, and the precise (though changeable) hierarchy of these particular bison is confirmed.

Later the bison show their speed and grace when they jog, then canter, down the valley, cross a six-foot wide creekbed without seriously jumping, and follow a faint trail around a hill.

The Henry Mountains herd is descended from 23 bison brought from Yellowstone in 1941-42 and released in the Burr Desert east of the Henrys. They are genetic mixes because the Yellowstone bison are. At the turn of the century, wild bison numbers in the U.S. had dropped to one or two hundred—all Mountain Bison in Yellowstone—and in the effort to boost their population, the government purchased Plains Bison from private ranches and shipped them in. Not that the government had been especially heroic about saving the species up until this time: the first federal protection for bison passed Congress in 1894, well after the close of the buffalo slaughter that peaked between 1850 and 1882. The latter date is exact because the hunters and skinners on the Great Plains found no herds in 1883, and turned to other pursuits.

After watching the four bulls, I followed the bison trail through the hills, across a stream, and to a mesa-top upon which a hundred bison, split into two groups a quarter-mile apart, grazed with some urgency before nightfall. The trail was so efficient that the bison had to be considered role models for civil engineers. It generally followed ridgelines or contoured hills, and crossed gullies at convenient spots. It led from relatively lush valleys, to a creek (with trees for scratching), to a forage-rich mesa, to another creek.

Although my tunnel-vision is focused on the bison, I manage to observe other forms of life. Most conspicuous are the black-tailed jackrabbits that periodically burst from my vicinity and come to a stop three seconds later and 30 yards away. In the pinyon-juniper forests are mountain chickadees, flickers, juncos, ravens, a hairy woodpecker, a Clark's nutcracker, a calling great-horned owl. At the lowest margin of trees, where only juniper grows, bluebird flocks seek berries.

And in the mammal department, Bos taurus. At the stream with the rubbed cottonwoods, I encounter four cows who, it may be said, lumber away. I tell myself it's not their fault—it's tough to look dignified when your genes are reassembled for optimal beef production.

In the viewfield of my scope the two mini-herds graze into dusk. As an amateur bison-watcher I have an obligation to say that these are not friendly, pettable, spunky-survivor animals. They're more likely to puncture your lung than pose for close-ups. They don't read history, or wax nostalgic about former greatness, or tolerate human sympathy inside of 15 feet.

Bison are not loners, though older bulls can be somewhat antisocial. They travel together and graze together. Aside from humans, the only predator they feared in their history was the wolf, and a wolf could kill only a young calf or a sick or crippled adult. To be exact, only vulnerable animals showed fear; a group of healthy adults would be unconcerned, to such an extent that Native American Plains tribes used a wolf disguise in their bison-hunting repertoire. Possibly three in ten bison calves were taken by wolves.

For the Henrys bison, the human predators show up every November, paying $300 each to the Utah Division of Wildlife in exchange for their licenses. The hunters kill 30 to 50 bison a year, which maintains the total herd count at around 400-450 animals. Despite thousands of acres of juniper having been chained and seeded for grass by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the forage of the Henrys is limited. And though the bison are efficient and unpicky grazers, they have competition from a fellow cud-chewer: the domestic cow.

The Henry Mountains are public land, and the BLM is the trustee in charge. Here, as throughout much of the West (the agency oversees about one-third of the 11 Western states), BLM leases land to ranchers and their cattle. That they do this at a cut-rate price, and with often shoddy supervision, is an issue that periodically makes the rounds of Congress, various courts of law, and the Interior Department. But the important fact for the bison is that the Henrys can feed only about 1000 large herbivores, and 600 of them have signed leases.

The cattle-bison conflict has flared up wherever there are bison. In Yellowstone, bison crossing the park boundary into the national forests may be killed, though rangers try vigorously to flush them back into the park. In Canada, officials are debating whether to kill the entire herd of bison in Wood Buffalo National Park. In both of these headline cases, the issue is not grazing competition; it is bacteria.

Brucellosis takes its toll on bison and cattle. It may cause spontaneous abortion in pregnant cows, or death. It is fairly contagious, spreading mainly by contact with carcasses and the afterbirth of calves. Thus the fear of the cattle-ranchers, that infected bison will stray into herds of livestock and, if not infect them, at least disqualify them from Grade A USDA standards. The irony is that domestic cows first brought the disease to North America from Europe and bestowed it on the genetically similar bison.

As it happens, these Henry Mountains bison know something about brucellosis. In 1962 they were captured and corralled in their Burr Desert homeland on the eastern flank of the Henrys and vaccinated, with the infected bison killed. Another ten died during handling. The most compelling part of the story came next: by the following year the herd of 70 had crossed the spine of the Henrys range and begun using the western lowlands and foothills, mirroring their former seasonal movements. It is on the west side that they are found today.

Eventually it may come to pass that the Henrys bison will push out the cattle. The public wants to see bison, and cattle are earning a reputation, deserved or not, for ruining public rangelands (grazing by any animal can be managed well or badly). Nobody's talking wolf reintroduction in the Henrys, but then wolves are about as beloved in Utah as Josef Stalin. Utah may even buy out a grazing permit here and there. The bison don't realize it, but they're popular—stylish, in some circles.

Bison meat, they say, is good, and good for you—more amino acids, less cholesterol. Is that the future for bison? Or as a cattle-bison crossbreed? For a rancher, bison are superior in other ways: they take care of themselves through the hardest winters, and they eat almost everything.

They offer great romance, too. The vision of buffalo roaming the plains is almost hardwired into our American brains, and experiments are underway to see how practical the vision is. Probably tourism will figure into the bison equation, as the agriculture economy of the Great Plains declines to a point where soils and aquifers are exhausted.

The Henry Mountains bison are a sidebar to that story. Given their remoteness from population centers and the few unimproved roads in the area, it's not easy to see these bison, or sometimes even know within 20 miles where they are. But that's good news, because remoteness and uncertainty are forms of wildness.