Moab 2015: Antelope Island History

What happens when you combine a late night, an early flight, and a herd of bison?  A fabulous experience on Antelope Island – just outside of Salt Lake City!

The mountains below on our flight to Salt Lake City

The mountains below on our flight to Salt Lake City

We had to get up at 2:30 am for our 5 am flight, but it meant that we were in Salt Lake City at 9:30 am! We had the whole day to explore.  The main purpose of our trip was to visit Moab, Utah, but I wanted to check out a couple of places in Salt Lake City too!  We got our rental car, and found out we had been upgraded to a shiny black Buick Enclave.  We drove up to Antelope Island, stopping on the way for some picnic food.  Soon we were there!

Antelope Island is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake, 15 miles long by 4.5 miles wide at it’s widest point.  It is a prairie grassland with igneous and sedimentary rocks – the oldest rocks here, from the Precambrian period, are some of the oldest rocks in the United States.  If you are a rock person, you’ll be interested in the fact that these rocks are even older than the rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon!

Antelope Island is named for the antelope that made their home there when the island was first “discovered” by white men – John C. Fremont and Kit Carson – they were actually pronghorn, but who’s keeping score? Mormon pioneers set up some early ranches on the island, and soon livestock owned by the Mormon Church were grazing on the land. Antelope Island claims the title to the oldest building in Utah still on its original foundation, and built by white people – that’s a lot of qualifiers, isn’t it?  It is the Fielding Garr Ranch.

The Fielding Garr Ranch house was built in 1848, and Garr, a widower, lived there and managed the ranch with his nine children until 1870. At that point, the island was purchased by John Dooly, Sr. Dooly established the Island Improvement Company, which managed the island until the State of Utah purchased it – parts in 1969 and the remainder in 1984. And Dooly is responsible for adding what is arguably the island’s most distinctive feature – a herd of bison.

In 1893, Dooly imported 4 bison bulls, 4 cows and 4 calves to the island. He planned to establish a herd and profit on selling the rights to hunt them. At that time, American Bison were almost extinct in their native range. The bison herd exploded to several hundred animals with no natural predators on the island, but for some reason the idea of organized hunts never really took off.

The Wasatch Mountains from the Fielding Garr Ranch

The Wasatch Mountains from the Fielding Garr Ranch

After using the bison to film Western movies – notably a silent film called The Covered Wagon in 1923, an organized hunt was arranged in 1926 to slaughter the herd. What a shame…  However, small numbers of bison survived and were left alone. They managed to reproduce and reestablish the herd that exists on the island today.

Today there are about 500-700 bison on the island, they are rounded up each year for health checks and vaccinations and excess animals are auctioned off for breeding stock or meat. There are also about 250 mule deer, 200 pronghorn, 200 bighorn sheep, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, porcupines and small rodents. The pronghorn and bighorn sheep were both reintroduced after Antelope Island became a State Park, having been eliminated by hunting and to make more room for sheep and cattle during the island’s ranching days.

Antelope Island is also excellent habitat for migratory birds. Although the salinity of the lake, up to 25% salt content, makes it unable to support fish, the lake has huge populations of brine shrimp (tiny little things) and brine flies that birds love to eat.

Apparently in the early 20th century, there was talk of making Antelope Island into a National Park, but that plan never went anywhere. I could see it being a National Park – the scenic beauty and diversity of wildlife is amazing. Without knowing this, Jon even asked me, “why isn’t this a National Park?” You’ll get an idea of why so many people think it should be when I show you our visit!

5 thoughts on “Moab 2015: Antelope Island History

  1. Glad you enjoyed Antelope Island. Our camping experience there was unforgettable, due to a very close encounter with a bison, and an encounter with the Mormon book-marketing folks!

    • We didn’t encounter any Mormons that we know of, but did see some bison close-up, from the safety and comfort of our car. When we were hiking the bison were much further away.

  2. Pingback: Moab 2015: Antelope Island | Wine and History Visited

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