There’s a magnificent starkness to Utah’s Great Salt Lake. A thin coating of water covers patches of it, but the salt – an additional 2.2m tons of it flow in each year, while water just evaporates in the dry heat – always wins out in the end.
Approximately 75 miles long by 45 miles wide, the bleak, briny expanse that Utah was built around should be a barren wasteland. But one island in the middle of it has become a most unlikely wildlife refuge.
Antelope Island is reached via a causeway from the city of Ogden, and if you approach with your windows down, you’ll notice the smell of brine flies and brine shrimp decaying on the salty beaches. Jeremy Shaw, the manager of the State Park that covers the island, says they’re pretty much the only creatures that can live in the water – it’s too salty for anything else.
“But they bring in a lot of birdlife,” he says. “And a lot of money too. The brine shrimp industry here is worth $250m a year – they’re used to make food for tank fish.”
With all respect to the brine shrimp and migratory birdlife, however, they aren’t the creatures that people come to Antelope Island to see. There are a couple of hundred pronghorn antelope, which give the island its name even though they were only reintroduced in the 1990s, plus decent stocks of mule deer, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits and bobcats.
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It only takes a short drive down the main road along the island’s east coast to find the real spellbinders, however.
Roaming the flats, gently plodding forth in seemingly ceremonial synchronisation, are hundreds of bison. They’re clumsy, bulky and ungainly, yet seem to possess an odd, mesmeric grace en masse. Some stop to roll around in the dirt, kicking up dust clouds, and calves skip with a gambolling energy entirely devoid from their ponderously plodding mothers.
Once upon a time, much of the American West look like this, but the early settlers took to hunting bison with such enthusiasm that numbers were reduced to a tiny trickle. Shooting them out of train carriage windows was seen as not only OK, but rather good fun.
Antelope Island’s herd owes its presence to William Glassman of Ogden. He visited friends in Texas, became enchanted with the bison herds he saw there and recognised a need to preserve the creatures. He purchased twelve of them – four bulls, four cows and four calves – and gave them to the then owners of Antelope Island on the condition that they’d be turned loose.
They were barged over in 1893, and today’s herd is descended from it. Its members share a unique genetic allele unknown in bison elsewhere. They’re doing so well that, every autumn, a cull is held in order to keep numbers in check. There are usually between 500 and 700 – any more puts a strain on the island’s food sources during the winter months.
Some of them, however, seem intent on getting the numbers down through self-sacrifice. Near the 19th century ranch halfway down the east coast, one of the gruff-looking bulls rises from the hillock he’s been perched on and takes a lazy amble across the road. Utterly unperturbed by the oncoming traffic, he turns his head in a gesture of superiority. Not only is there life in the middle of the Great Salt Lake, but it’s rather arrogant too.
This story was originally written for ABTA magazine.
All content copyright David Whitley.