The Henry Mountains Buffalo Herd:
Ghosts of the Mountains
by Barry Scholl
“When it came time to find new pasture, the buffalo seemed not to have singular identities. Their herd instinct took over and they moved as one. And when they moved like that, the impact of the herd on the land was greater than the sum of the individual animals. It’s called hoof action and is an essential part of the prairie ecosystem. Cattle’s hooves seem somehow to impact the land differently. Of course that makes sense, since our grass evolved to thrive under buffalo hooves, not cattle hooves. Only buffalo are a force that can match the scale of this land.”
Buffalo for the Broken Heart
In his non-fiction account of converting his failing cattle operation into a buffalo ranch, Dan O’Brien was writing about the Black Hills of South Dakota. And although his herd subsists largely on native grasses, their diet is supplemented during the winter with alfalfa and grain.
Some 800 miles from the plains of South Dakota is another herd of American buffalo (Bison bison), this one truly wild. If you’re fortunate enough, as you venture along the ragged fringes of the Henry Mountains, you might spy them, wallowing in a roadside wallow, surprisingly agile despite their massive bulk. Or you might catch a glimpse of their dark forms racing in the distance, kicking up a plume of dust before they slip into the stands of pinyon and juniper that darken the slopes of the Henrys, the last discovered and last named Mountain Range in America. In a sense, the buffalo, though not native to those mountains, are the perfect denizens; like the range they inhabit, they are wild and intriguing. And they are one of only three free-ranging buffalo herds in the nation.
Before Europeans began to colonize North America, some sixty million buffalo inhabited the continent from the Eastern seaboard to the Rocky Mountains. O’Brien’s book offers a startling account of how quickly they were decimated through overhunting and fragmentation of their former range. In a period of only 12 years, between 1872 and 1884, the species was driven almost to extinction, with only small, scattered herds remaining.
One of those herds, incidentally, ended up on Antelope Island, in northern Utah (and the story of the speculator who imported them there as part of a planned community with its own “wildlife zoo” is worth investigating, but it doesn’t concern us here). The original 18 animals of the Henry Mountains herd were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park in 1941. They were released not into the mountains, but the arid desert of Robber’s Roost, northeast of their eventual home. In 1942, another five bulls were added to the herd. That same year, the whole bunch evidently decided that they wanted to be nearer to the comparatively verdant grassland of the Henrys and moved across the Dirty Devil River to the Burr Desert at the north end of the mountain range. In 1963, the herd moved again, this time into the mountains themselves, abandoning the desert life. The herd thrived in the new locale and quickly grew to about 80 animals. Today, the herd consists of between 300-400 animals, which is regarded as the maximum the range will support.
If you go out in search of buffalo, do not forget these are wild critters weighing as much as 2,000 pounds. If you venture out on a photo safari, take a telephoto lens and keep your vehicle between yourself and the animals. In spite of their lumbering appearance, buffalo are fast; as Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) biologist Ron Hodson has noted, “When a buffalo appears to be ambling along, the truth is that a person would need to jog just to keep up.”
According to the DWR, Buffalo feed at dusk and dawn, and bed down in timber during the day. They are gregarious, typically traveling in small groups of half-a-dozen to as many as 100 animals. The breeding season takes place in July and August, at which time the smaller herds aggregate and bulls move around the herd bellowing and pawing at the dust. Not surprisingly, this is frequently the easiest time to locate the buffalo. Calves drop between April and July, with about 80 percent of the reproductive-aged cows giving birth to a single calf. Soon after birth, the tawny-colored calves join the herd. Their hair remains light-colored for about three months, when it begins to darken to the chocolate brown hue we associate with these animals.
The Henry Mountains herd is hunted, which has the effect of making the animals wary of human contact. Both the DWR’s Hodson and Dr. Robert Sigfrid, D.V.M., who formerly conducted blood testing on the bison, have described the wildness of this herd. As Sigfird put it, “Buffalo are elusive – not big, dumb beasts.” Others have described them as moving “like shadows” even through heavily timbered areas.
One thing’s for certain—if you do spot one of the Henry Mountains buffalo, consider yourself fortunate; you’re viewing a living vestige of our nation’s wild past, even if they did take a circuitous route to get here, from Yellowstone to Robber’s Roost to the Burr Desert to their current home.
For information on where you might view the buffalo, visit the Entrada Institute Web site, www.entradainstitute.org
Where to View the Buffalo
The Henry Mountains Buffalo are peripatetic by nature. Experts say it’s not unheard of for them to span the entire length of the mountains—more than 20 miles—in a single day. Therefore, you’re far from assured of seeing them. However, a few guidelines can be made that will increase your chances of a successful photo safari.
The herd is generally found at higher elevations during the spring and summer and migrates to the lower reaches on the west side of the mountains during the winter and fall.
Therefore, the animals can sometimes be found in the following areas: in the winter try Swap Mesa on the south end of the range. In early spring, they are often reported at the Cave Flat-Airplane Springs area. By June, Star Flat and Burned Ridge are likely locales. In the fall, they travel back to Swap Mesa via the Horn, Tarantula Mesa and Cave Flat.
For more information, contact the BLM office in Hanksville, P.O. Box 99, Hanksville, Utah 84734, (435) 542-3461.