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The Serengeti Plains of northern Tanzania are recognized across the globe as one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world. What makes the Serengeti so special is the abundance and diversity of wildlife found there.
Right here in Utah we have been blessed with a similar, albeit smaller version of the magnificent Serengeti.
Nowhere in the state can you find the variety and abundance of wildlife that makes Antelope Island home.
Antelope Island State Park
Antelope Island is a 28,000 acre natural island in the Great Salt Lake. SInce the late 1800s the land was used as a cattle and sheep ranch. It became a state park in 1981.
Access to the island is over a seven mile cause way from Syracuse, Utah. Park admission fees are $10 which includes a $3 causeway fee and a $1 wildlife fee.
Administered by the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, Antelope Island provides excellent roads, a visitor’s center, camping, hiking, picnicking and swimming in the buoyant salt water of the Great Salt Lake. Stunning sunsets are a frequent bonus for park visitors, but the most popular attraction of the island is the wildlife found there.
Located west of Syracuse, Utah in the Great Salt Lake, Antelope Island encompasses just over 28,000 acres of mostly grass and sage habitat. Although the island may appear to be dry and barren as commuters travel past on Interstate-15, the steep and rocky slopes are home to bighorn sheep, The sagebrush pockets and ravines are favorite hangouts of mule deer, and pronghorn can be found taking advantage of their exceptional eyesight in the open grasslands.
Here’s a brief look at what you can expect to encounter on your photo safari on the plains of Utah’s version of the Serengeti.
Antelope Island WIldlife
The most famous animal in Antelope Island is also the most visible. At one time an estimated 50 million bison roamed the plains of what is now the United States. By the 1890s market hunting had nearly caused the extinction of the species. In an effort to preserve these shaggy beasts, William Glassman and John Dooly moved a small herd of bison to Antelope Island in 1893. The island herd is now managed to maintain a population of around 550 animals. This number maintains a healthy breeding population while preventing the herd from getting bigger than the carrying capacity of the habitat.
Each fall, in late October most of the bison are rounded up and herded to holding pens where they are vaccinated and checked for disease and general health. Excess animals are sold at auction and a small number of permits are issued to hunters. The bulls harvested by hunters are usually the biggest and most cantankerous of animals. If left in the herd they might present a danger to park visitors and even other bison.
Although these peaceful looking behemoths may seem docile, they should never be approached. More people are injured by bison every year in Yellowstone National Park than by all the other animals combined.
Individual bison or small groups of bulls can often be found on the north end of the island. Larger herds of mixed gender hang out along the east shore and can usually be seen while driving between the entrance and the Fielding Garr Ranch.
The large mule deer bucks of Antelope Island have been getting a lot of attention lately. A few years ago the state decided to open the Island to the hunting of two mule deer bucks each year. This controversial hunt is aimed at generating funds that will be used to improve wildlife habitat across the island. These improvements will benefit all the animals and could make wildlife viewing even better.
The 2013 mule deer hunting permit auction resulted in a record $310,000 bid. These funds will go a long way toward improving wildlife habitat on Antelope Island.
Mule deer can be found almost anywhere on the island but are usually within a mile or less of the many freshwater springs. Look for bachelor herds of bucks in late summer through mid October. Once the rut starts these bucks will start fighting to establish dominance and breeding rights. During the rut they will be found with the does.
Favorite mule deer hangouts include the sage pockets near the visitor center. This sage grows tall enough that even a standing buck will easily disappear from view. The boulder field area just south of the chain link fence is another good place to see deer as is the Tin Lambing Shed area. Deer can also be found near the Fielding Garr Ranch.
The first non-native visitors to Antelope Island were John C. Fremont and Kit Carson during their exploration of the Great Salt Lake in 1845. According to Carson’s autobiography, They “were informed by the Indians that there was an abundance of fresh water on it and plenty of antelope.” The story goes that they shot a pronghorn and in gratitude for the meat they named it Antelope Island.
Pronghorns are not really antelope, but are more closely related to goats. They are the only animal in the world with a forked horn and the only one that sheds its outer horn sheaths and grows a new one every year.
Pronghorns were absent from the island for some time, but were reintroduced in 1993. Since then the population has stabilized and pronghorns can be seen, usually as singles or in small groups, on the north and eastern portions of Antelope Island. Coyotes have a significant impact on fawn production and may be the main reason pronghorns are not more abundant.
The other large ungulate found on Antelope Island is the California bighorn sheep. These wild sheep were introduced to the island in 1997. They have made the steep and rock peaks around Frary Peak their home. The best chance of seeing one of the bighorns is offered by making the seven mile round trip hike to Frary Peak and glassing the rocky slopes to the south and west. This can be a strenuous hike with more than 2,000 feet in elevation change from the shore of the lake to the peak. Take plenty of water and plan on spending most of the day.
The bighorns have done well enough in their new home that some have been transplanted to other areas to bolster or establish herds in other areas. These transplants are expensive and have been met with limited success. There are no cougars on Antelope Island and sheep from this herd have no natural fear or understanding of predation. When transplanted off the island, they all to frequently become nothing more than very expensive cougar food.
Like the mule deer of the island, the state offers two hunting permits each year with funds generated from the sale being used to improve wildlife habitat.
Big game animals are not the only wildlife to be seen on the island. Coyotes are abundant and have, to a large extent, overcome their natural caution and shyness. Early morning and late evening are the best times to see coyotes. They often follow roadways looking for roadkill and can usually be seen hunting for small rodents and birds in sage pockets and grassy meadows. After sunset and in the predawn morning hours its not uncommon to hear these crafty hunters howling as they communicate with other coyotes.
Small game animals and a wide variety of birds also make Antelope Island their home. Cottontails and jack rabbits are abundant, flocks of chukars can be found in rocky outcropping and burrowing owls are frequently seen in the morning hours.
Sunsets on Antelope Island can be spectacular and a great opportunity to view this fire in the sky and watch small game can be had every evening. Walk north and slightly west from the visitor center and find a seat on one of the higher rocks. Sit quietly and watch. Rabbits will come out and take dust baths on the trails. Chukars can be heard calling to each other as they move into the rocks to roost for the night and the brilliant reds of the setting sun will take your breath away.
If You Go
If you visit Antelope Island be aware that in early spring (usually from early May to mid June) there are swarms of pesky biting gnats. Be sure to wear covering clothing and apply generous amounts of insect repellant to discourage these “no see ‘ums”. The rest of the year the island is relatively free of flying pests.
We have also found that the wildlife usually tends to move away from heavy human traffic on busy weekends so visiting during the week could make your experience more pleasurable.
There is drinking water on the island, but we found it to have a funny taste. I recommend bringing your own drinking water. There are nice warm coin operated showers in the restrooms by the north beach, but we have found that you’ll probably be sharing the shower with several spiders.