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Bison Hunting In Utah

January 11, 2008.

Utah is one of the handful of Western states that offers hunts for wild, free-ranging, Boone and Crockett-eligible bison.

There are two herds, one in the Henry Mountains and one on Antelope Island. The state is also working towards establishing an additional herd in the Book Cliffs (for more info, see coverage in the Salt Lake Tribune.)

Some of these hunts can be really, really good ... but good luck on getting the tag.

Antelope Island

Within sight of downtown Salt Lake City, Antelope Island is a 28,000 acre island in the Great Salt Lake. The largest of the Lake's 10 islands, Antelope Island is managed as a Utah state park.

Bison were introduced to the island in 1893 and now number about 600 animals.

Sadly, the state of Utah has determined that the bison need to be managed in a fashion similar to ranch-raised bison. Every year since 1986, the state has conducted a November bison roundup, where helicopters, cowboys, and pickups are used to herd the bison in to corrals. The bison are innoculated against various bovine diseases and have the considerable indignity (for a wild animal) of having a microchip inserted in to their ear.

Despite this annual man-handling, the bison are left wild and free for the rest of the year and have a tremendous amount of acreage to roam.

If you draw an Antelope Island bison permit, you must complete an orientation course before the hunt.

For more information on Antelope Island bison, Utah.com has a good article (written by an anti-hunting vegetartian, interestingly).

Video of the annual Antelope Island bison roundup:

The Henry Mountains

Central Utah's Henry Mountains hunt area is rough, steep, dry, and vast. One of the greatest challenges facing the bison hunter is simply finding the animals. There are innumerable canyons for them to hide in, they are hard to spot in the shade of trees under which they shelter, and they can be found anywhere from the desert floor to 11,000 feet above sea level.

Despite the challenges, the Henrys are widely considered one of the great hunting areas in the Lower 48 (especially for mule deer), and an opportunity to hunt bison here is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The herd was established in 1941, when 18 head were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park to the Henry Mountain area. Five more bulls were added to the population in 1942. Today, the population is estimated at 500 animals. The Henry Mountains bison herd is considered genetically pure, only 1 of 4 such herds in the world.

The population is far enough above objectives that license numbers have been almost tripled for 2008, and efforts are underway to trap-and-transplant bison from the Henrys to the Book Cliffs.

While only either-sex permits are offered on Antelope Island, both either-sex and cow-only permits are offered in the Henrys. If you draw a cow bison permit, you must attend an orientation course before you can hunt.

Getting A Tag

While Utah has some unique opportunities for bison, getting a tag is very, very hard.

First, Utah classifies bison as a "Once In A Lifetime" species. Other species in this category include desert bighorn sheep, rocky mountain bighorn sheep, shiras moose, and mountain goat. Utah only allows you to apply for only one of these species. So if you want to go for bison in Utah, you have to forego a shot at Utah's other most interesting species.

Second, as of this year, you have to purchase a non-refundable $65 hunting license if you want to apply for limited entry hunts. This is a noticeable additional cost for applying for a hunt with such tough odds, and will certainly add up after what could easily be 10 or 20 years of applications.

Third, be advised that the tags aren't cheap — $1,513 for the Henry Mountains, $2,610 for Antelope Island (non-resident prices).

Fourth, you need to understand the implications of Utah's bonus point system. If you're just getting started on building points, things are grim for you.

Every year you apply for bison and don't draw, you receive a bonus point. Each bonus point gives you an additional chance for the next year. Furthermore, 50% of available tags are reserved for the applicants with the most bonus points. Going in to 2008, the most bonus points an applicant can have is 15. So if there are 2 non-resident tags for a given unit, 1 of them will be reserved for somebody with 15 bonus points, meaning only 1 will be available for the general draw. This great news if you're at the top of the list, and really bad news for the other 99% of us.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources publishes draw odds without taking bonus points in to consideration. The math is easy to do, however, and the odds presented below include bonus point considerations and therefore reflect your real odds.

Note that the UDWR has authorized an additional 52 tags for the Henry Mountains this year, based upon new population survey data. But, remember that half of these additional tags go to the applicants with the most points, and that many of these will go to conservation organizations to be auctioned off.

Hunt 2007 Odds As Published by UDWR 2007 Real Odds if You Had Zero Bonus Points
Antelope Island "Hunter's Choice"
1 in 126
1 in 497
Henry Mountains "Hunter's Choice," first split
1 in 158
1 in 1,460
Henry Mountains "Hunter's Choice," second split
1 in 155
1 in 1,471
Henry Mountains Cow
1 in 18
1 in 109

If you have bonus points for bison, your odds are as shown above, plus your bonus points. For example, if you have 2 bonus points, your odds for Antelope Island in 2008 are 3 in 497, which translates to 1 in 166.

To Apply or Not To Apply?

Draw odds are bad. The additional cost of the $65 hunting license every year is prohibitive. If you do draw, license cost is painful. But, if you want to hunt wild bison, and you're willing to stick with it for 10+ years, Utah does offer tempting opportunities. And, you can also apply for deer, elk, or antelope after you have bought the $65 license.

Personally, I'm right on the fence with regards to whether it's worth it or not.

But ... I sent in my application for Antelope Island last monday.

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