ANTELOPE ISLAND — The scene had all the sights and sounds of a movie set, only the annual Great Bison Roundup at Antelope Island on Friday was for real.
The experience was complete with the cracking sounds of bullwhips echoing against the mountains, sounding like gunshots.
Participants of any level of riding ability could get as close to the bison as was safe and as fit their interests. Experienced guides surrounded them with advice and warnings.
“It seems like a movie where we are all on a ridge and we go attack something,” said Air Force Col. Sarah Zabel, a first-time participant.
Friday’s participants ranged in age from 14 to 91 and from novice to expert horse people.
And as enjoyable as they found the event, the annual experience is about to get even better.
The staff at Antelope Island has been benefiting for four years from the expertise of Chad Kreaner, who manages the herd of up to 1,500 bison at Custer State Park in South Dakota.
Kreaner, who runs the only other public bison roundup in the country, held his 75th event in September, which was attended by both Jeremy Shaw, Antelope Island manager, and John Sullivan, the park’s assistant manager.
The South Dakota event draws up to 15,000 spectators every year.
“It’s one of the biggest single-day events in our state,” Kreaner said. “I told (the Antelope Island managers) I think you got a good opportunity with the population base you got.”
And Shaw said he’s thinking that if the bison can be wrangled to end up on White Rock Bay every year before heading into the stables, local spectators will have the chance to see a show unlike what they’ve had in the past.
“If we can tweak things enough that we can ride down this way every year, the public would have something to watch,” he said.
But as far as enjoyment for local riders, Antelope Island’s roundup has South Dakota beat.
Kreaner said only 20 of about 100 riders who apply to participate in the South Dakota roundup each year are chosen to do so. And they get to help only once in their lifetime.
The 250 riders who got to help at Antelope Island on Friday were watched over by a dozen South Dakota riders that Kreaner brought with them.
The South Dakota riders took the lead in herding the bison and spent the day warning other riders when they were too close or otherwise putting themselves in danger.
Shaw said his employees soon will be able to provide similar safety and security for those who attend the event.
“Our rangers are going to start riding more and getting more acquainted with (the bison),” Shaw said. “You’ll have that feeling (of safety) riding with our guys you have now.”
Kreaner said he realized the need for improvement when four horses were gored by the bison the first time he ever attended the annual Antelope Island event.
But this year, no horses were gored, and the record 15-mile trek the horses and riders took to push the bison over the rocky west side of the island was believed by many to be the most difficult yet.
Chris Linford, of Taylor, is a wrangler with R & G Horse and Wagon, which operates out of Antelope Island.
He said he has participated in the roundup every year for 10 years.
“This is the best it’s been by far,” he said. “It’s been very organized and safe.”
Before the South Dakota wranglers taught the Utah eventgoers the specific way to herd bison, Linford said, sometimes by the end of the drive, only 50 bison remained in the herd.
On Friday, Linford said about 90 percent or more of the herd was located and pushed into winter pens.
Ryan Conner, a 29-year-old horseman, drove in from Southern California to prove himself as the most aggressive bison herder of the day.
Many times, Conner single-handedly sped up the herd or turned the animals with his skill riding in a fast diagonal line behind them and cracking his whip.
Unlike the 13 professionals who came in from South Dakota, Conner said he’s just a regular horseman.
But he said he honed his bison-herding skills four years ago when he heard about the event and attended with his father.
He said the chance to do something that most people can’t normally do draws him to the event each time.
Barbara Riddle, director of the Davis Convention & Visitors Bureau, said there are many yearly participants who wouldn’t miss the event.
She said a woman from Minnesota and another from Florida fly into town each year to participate in the event.
Air Force Col. Rick Le Blonc, commander of the Utah Test and Training Range, rode in the roundup last year when it was only his second time in his life on a horse.
“It’s an awesome way to see wildlife and the beauty out here,” he said, noting that he was excited for the chance to participate again.
He wasn’t disappointed Friday when he saw a pack of coyotes, numerous antelope, jackrabbits and an owl besides the hundreds of bison in the herd.