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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Utah’s Bison

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Above Moab’s Mill Canyon, a sandstone cliff holds an art gallery. Its images range from petroglyphs left by the ancient Fremont people to cowboy inscriptions. One stands out—a bull bison, complete with hump and horns. Nearby, painted Ute warriors carry shields, a form of body armor crafted from the animal’s skin.

Most people associate bison with the Great Plains, yet evidence of these giant herbivores does crop up in Canyon Country. In one huge alcove in Canyonlands’ Maze district paleontologists found the fossilized dung of bison along with that of giant ground sloths and mammoths.

Paleo-Indian hunters pursued these giant Pleistocene animals 10,000 years ago. Then the bison, like the mammoths and sloths, disappeared from the Colorado Plateau – perhaps because of climate change, perhaps because of the people who hunted them.

The rock images of horsemen and archers hunting the shaggy beast, then, must be attributed to Ute artists. They based their Plains Indian culture on bison that roamed western Colorado until the 19th century.

In 1941 eighteen bison from Yellowstone were introduced to southern Utah’s Henry Mountains. Today several hundred descendents graze the forested slopes, drifting about like cloud shadows. They move often and are thought to cause less range damage than cattle.

The Bureau of Land Management has tried to improve conditions for them by clearing pinyon-juniper woodlands and reseeding native grasses and forbs. Depending on your perspective, such management – like Utah’s bison herd itself – is either unnatural or a modern reminder of the area’s distant natural past.

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