Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bison Herds Used to Roam Through Utah

By Lynn Arave

IT is the plains of the Midwest that most people think of when roaming herds of Bison come to mind.
However, there is evidence that these large mammals once meandered in Utah, as far south as Kane County.
Karen D. Lupo, writing in Utah Historical Quarterly (Spring 1996) said her research showed the bison herds in prehistoric times were most concentrated in Utah in the Willard Bay area.
The buffalo were also hunted by native peoples in Utah up to 10,000 years ago.
Bison skeletons have been found in the High Uintas, Echo Canyon, Utah Valley, Parowan Canyon and along the shores of the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake.
Notwithstanding, there are few first-hand accounts of buffalo being killed in Utah. Even the Utes Indians were described as fish eaters and had no buffalo hides or fried meat.
Although Mormon Pioneers founds herds of bison so dense east of the Rocky Mountains that they had to have advance parties clear them out of the way, bison were not prevalent in Utah in 1847.
There was an 1850 report by Mormons where a few buffalo were encountered in the Salt Lake Valley that year.
It may have been severe winter storms around and before 1845 that killed most of the buffalo left in northern Utah. Even some Jim Bridger tales talk about deep snow as wiping out the animals and perhaps the last bison in Utah Valley was killed by cold and snow in that winter of 1845.
Another Native American legend states it was 1820 when a fierce winter storm wiped out many buffalo in Utah.
Some Shoshoni Indians to the north in the Snake River Valley also have oral traditions that claim buffalo were prevalent there until about 1824 when a massive winter storm all but wiped them out.
Yet, still another possibility: according to Lipo's article, trappers and Native Americans may have used guns and horses to wipe out what bison were left in the area.

 Mountain man Osborne Russell, who kept a detailed journal of his nine years (1834-1843) in the Rocky Mountains, mentioned herds of buffalo in his accounts.
Near Lava Hot Spring, Idaho, he reported (his spelling/grammar is left as he wrote it):: "Portneuf: here we found several large bands of Buffaloe."
Later, he said of that same southeast Idaho area: "In the year 1836 large bands of Buffaloe could be seen in almost every little Valley on the small branches of this Stream at this time the only traces which could be seen of them were the scattered bones of those that had been killed. Their trails which had been made in former years deeply indented in the earth were over grown with grass and weeds The trappers often remarked to each other as they rode over these lonely plains that it was time for the White man to leave the mountains as Beaver and game had nearly disappeared."
Later, Russell noted in Yellowstone:  "thousands of Buffaloe carelessly feeding feeding in the green vales contribut to the wild and romantic Splendor of the Surrounding Scenery."
Russell stated about the Great Salt Lake area: "The Buffaloe have long since left the shores of these Lakes."
Russell was also prophetic in predicting the demise of the bison, as he also stated in the appendix of his journal:
 "The vast numbers of these animals which once traversed such an extensive region in Nth. America are fast diminishing. The continual increasing demand for robes in the civilised world has already and is still contributing in no small degree to their destruction, whilst on the other hand the continual increase of wolves and other 4 footed enemies far exceeds that of the Buffaloe when these combined efforts for its destruction is taken into consideration, it will not be doubted for a moment that this noble race of animals, so useful in supplying the wants of man, will at no far distant period become extinct in North America. The Buffaloe is already a stranger, altho so numerous 10 years ago, in that part of the country which is drained by the sources of the Colerado, Bear and Snake Rivers and occupied by the Snake and Bonnack Indians." 
Still another tale in Box Elder County claims that a small herd of bison -- the last one there -- was wiped out by local Indians soon after white settlers entered the area.
Don Grayson, another ancient bison researcher, concluded that buffalo were very prevalent in Utah until about 700 years ago -- then a climate change reduced the growth of grasses as the mainstay in feed for the large animals.
Thus, between climate change, harsh winters and 19th Century man's mass slaughters, the animal became endangered.
Locally, today, Antelope Island offers the best opportunity for observerving these large animals. Further north, Yellowstone National Park is also home to many bison.

Note that Bison were not on Antelope Island when either the Mormon Pioneers or the government explorers were first on the Isle. They were added in the early 1890s.