ANTELOPE ISLAND — Above the noise of bison being loaded into chutes for ear tags, shots and health checks Thursday, there was a quiet movement of animals from pen to pen as they were separated from a herd of 700 to 750 into groups of eight or 10.
Bison jumping, kicking and bellowing as they look for ways out of confinement in the tight chutes was enough to keep 81-year-old volunteer gate handlers Blair Barber, of Syracuse, and Rod Earl, of Layton, from wearing their hearing aids.
But up above them on the hill, there were only sounds reminiscent of “big, brown pigs,” sounds bison make naturally.
Biologist Jolene Rose-Greer has been handling bison at Antelope Island for 15 years and said it’s her distinct honor to start the process of sending the bison toward the path for their annual inspections.
She is so honored because, in her years in the field, she has learned a thing or two about communicating quietly and gently with the animals she respects so much.
“A lot of people would go in and whoop and holler, but what we’ve found is body language,” Rose-Greer said.
Up until a few years ago, the bison were herded into the inspection pens with trucks that got their share of wear and tear from angry and scared animals.
But now Rose-Greer, who flanks herself with additional quiet people, sends the animals on their way without much sound or ruckus.
She said she performs her task by acting on what she’s learned about how the bison don’t really want to be around her.
“I push that limit,” she said. “I step into their zone.”
So she separates and herds the animals through quiet movements and pointing her body in the way she wants them to go.
“I don’t think they see dimensionally very well,” she said. “From their actions, I think I’m a flat board they want to run past.”
Her quiet ways are enough to bring Antelope Island Park Manager Jeremy Smith to refer to her Thursday as the “Bison Whisperer.”
Rose-Greer said she never thought of herself as deserving of that title.
“I see the horse whisperer touching them on the nose and getting them to do what he wants,” she said. “It’s not that.”
But as she speaks about what she does and how she does it, the title seems more and more appropriate.
“I’ve seen them cry, the tears rolling down their cheeks,” she said of her efforts to watch the animals closely.
“They are living beauty, majestic, and they have so much to do with our nation’s history. This is the Wild West.”
And she said respectful listening is how she knows how to handle them.
“You never turn your back on them,” she said. “I know where they are at all times.”
And there is a reason she has learned to respect the animals so well.
“I’ve seen a calf knock six grown men on their rear ends,” she said. “They can flatten me in a heartbeat.”
Thursday was the first day of the annual bison inspections and health checks. The public is invited to watch the process again throughout the day today and Saturday until all the animals have received the once-over.
The event also allows state park officials to separate the animals the state parks will make available for public auction from those that will continue to roam the island.
The bison auction will be at 8 a.m.
Nov. 10 at the bison corrals on the island.
Interested buyers will be given the opportunity to view the bison from 8 a.m. to 9:45 a.m., with the auction beginning at 10 a.m., said Hollie Brown, State Parks and Recreation spokeswoman.
Those wishing to bid on bison must provide proof of financing and payment method arrangements before the auction begins, Brown said.
This year, as many as 220 bison could be auctioned off. Of those are 50 to 60 heifer calves, 50 to 60 bull calves, five to 10 yearling bulls, 20 to 25 yearling heifers, 25 to 30 two-year meat bulls, 10 to 15 two-year bred heifers and 15 to 20 mature cull cows.
The 2011 public auction generated a number of sales, with the high-end sales coming from the island’s two-year bulls, which went for an average sale price of $2,365 per animal. On the low end was the sale of the mature cows, which went for an average of $1,413 each.
But Rose-Greer said she doesn’t like to think much about the sale.
“When I see them on the trailer and they are going away, it’s kind of sad.”
However, she said the sale benefits the island in many ways.
Money generated from the sale pays for such improvements as habitat restoration, revegetation, weed eradication, stream restoration, installation of strategically located water troughs and introduction of new species in the park, she said.
“Without being able to use the herd for that income, we wouldn’t be able to enhance the situation for wildlife,” Rose-Greer said.
And improving the island allows all the wildlife at the park, and the public, to benefit.
“Most people have never seen a coyote,” she said, pointing to those on the island.
She also noted many other animals on the island for the public to see.