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Bison Return to Utah's Book Cliffs

January 19, 2009.

From the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources:

"It was a dream," Dwight Bunnell said of the time about 30 years ago when biologists started talking about putting bison back on the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah.

"When we started, many felt there would never be a chance to return bison to public lands here," he said. "But this is proof dreams can come true."

A retired Wildlife Section chief for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Bunnell was among about 60 people on hand to see the historic reintroduction of 16 bison onto public lands in the Book Cliffs.

Everyone in attendance at the Jan. 14 release seemed to agree.

"This is exciting!" said Bill Christensen, Utah director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. "This is historic. Bison have returned to the Book Cliffs!"

1941 was the last year a new bison herd was started on public land in Utah. "This is why the RMEF got involved in the Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative," Christensen said. "[This is] why we helped purchase two of the three ranches that were for sale from willing sellers [on the Book Cliffs] 18 years ago."

Christensen said the place looks a bit different with all the recent energy development, but the Book Cliffs is still a great place for wildlife.

"I'm really proud to be a part of it," Christensen said. "The Book Cliffs is the second largest project [in terms of acres for wildlife] that the foundation was involved with.

"This introduction is another major achievement for the partnership."

New herd starts with 45 bison

In all, 45 bison will be introduced onto public lands in the Book Cliffs. Another herd, managed by the Ute Tribe, roams to the west on the Hill Creek Extension of the Book Cliffs.

The DWR reintroduced 14 of the 45 animals donated by the Ute Tribe into the rugged, remote, roadless area of the Book Cliffs in August 2008.

Two bison explore their new home on the Book Cliffs.
These bison are among the animals biologists fitted with
radio collars. Photo by Ron Stewart.

The final 31 bison were captured from another free-ranging herd managed by the DWR on the Henry Mountains in southeastern Utah. The 16 released on Jan. 14, and the 15 scheduled for release on Jan. 15, are being reintroduced on Steer Ridge and Moon Ridge respectively.

Both of these areas are in the part of the Book Cliffs that has roads in it.

"We felt this would be the best area [for the latest release] for several reasons," said Dave Olsen, a biologist with the DWR. - (It)'s open, it's remote and it has good forage. Several habitat projects have helped prepare this area for the release. And a natural burn has helped us even more.

"Also, Bert DeLambert, the landowner on this side [of the Book Cliffs], was an integral part of the Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative, and cooperative grazing and habitat developments [associated with it]. He doesn't run many animals in this area, and he has an interest in bison. He felt this would be good site to release the bison and start the new herd. It's also as close as we could get to the roadless area in the Book Cliffs in the middle of winter."

A busy week!

The Jan. 14 and 15 releases started with a helicopter capture on Jan. 10 and 11 on the high plateaus of the Henry Mountains.

After the bison were captured, they were placed in large bags and flown to a staging area where blood and other samples were taken to be tested for disease. The bison were then loaded into trailers for transport to a quarantine station on Antelope Island State Park where they stayed for several days. After passing their disease testing, the bison were loaded up one more time for an eight-hour drive to be released on "the edge of nowhere!"

"All of the bison were given ear tags at the capture site. And before they left Antelope Island, we fitted some of the bison with radio collars," said Dax Mangus, DWR biologist on the Book Cliffs.

"The tags and radios, which can be read from the ground or from the air, will help us monitor the herd and track its movements. We'll also watch to see how well the habitat holds up, and we'll test [the bison] periodically for disease.

"I've been asked when the area will be open for bison hunting," Mangus said. "Yes, eventually hunting of the herd will be allowed, but that's still years away. Most of the animals we released were yearlings and calves, so it will be a couple years before the calves reach maturity."

Mangus said the management plan for the Book Cliffs calls for 450 bison on the public land.

"That is so incredible," Bunnell said as he watched two bulls work their way up a snow-covered slope and then silhouette themselves on a ridge against the blue sky. "They belong here!"


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