Last winter, the divisions of Parks and Recreation and Wildlife Resources transplanted 17 head of Rocky Mountain elk to Antelope Island State Park - all part of an ongoing attempt to re-introduce various wildlife species native to the island.
As it turned out, most of the elk couldn't wait to get off the island, escaping via the south causeway. Some even drowned trying to swim their way to freedom.However, it appears the elk are the only ones unhappy with Antelope Island. The antelope are thriving, the deer are doing well and the buffalo have never looked better. And the latest mammal to be reintroduced to the island may be the happiest of all - man.
"We're tickled pink to see visitors in the park again," said park manager Mitch Larsson. "It's nice to see bodies walking around the island and on the beaches. We've really missed that in the last 10 years."
After 10 years of being closed to the public, Antelope Island State Park was reopened to the public last Thursday, prompting thousands to trek across the newly completed causeway to reacquaint themselves with the natural wonders of the island that has long been a favorite destination for Wasatch Front recreationists.
Prior to the destruction of the causeway during the record floods of 1983, almost a half million people a year visited the island. Park officials estimate annual visitation could eventually top one million once renovations are completed.
The renovation could take several more months to complete. So far, the division has spent about $800,000 bringing the park facilities up to standard, "and we're not there yet," Larsson said.
Only about 2,000 acres on the north end of the island - the portion noted for its sandy beaches - are currently open to the public. The rest of the 28,000-acre island, along with the popular backcountry trails, will remain closed for now.
But Larsson said there is still plenty to do on the north end of the island. Several buffalo have been pushed into holding facilities accessible to the public, and the island's antelope have been hanging around the north end as well. Larsson said the beaches are all open, as is the 1.5-mile hiking trail to Buffalo Point.
For those wanting to spend more than a day, camping in trailers and self-contained campers is allowed in the beach parking lots. A primitive tent-camping area will be open by this weekend. A new campground with running water should be on-line by September.
Currently, park officials are racing to get the island's water system up and running. "When you take into consideration the park has been closed for 10 years, it's not too surprising to find funny things happen when we charge that large of a system," Larsson said.
Restrooms and showers were to be in operation by last weekend, and culinary water should be available by Tuesday.
While beach activities are an unquestionable draw to Antelope Island, Larsson said the division is trying to focus public attention on the unique wildlife values to be found there. And it's not just the buffalo, though that's what most people come to see.
Larsson estimates there are about 700 buffalo, counting the recent births of about 100 calves. The antelope, brought to the island in January, are thriving, too, with 41 of the animals documented following the birth of several fawns.
There are about eight to 10 elk remaining on the island, though no bulls have been spotted for some time. "The 17 elk we brought out here had spent a lot of time in the mountains, and it was difficult for them to adjust to a terrain without forests. Those that are left are doing very well."
Park officials may reintroduce desert bighorn sheep to the island this winter. Other mammals found on the island include coyotes, badgers, skunks, various rodents, porcupines and rabbits. There are also three different kinds of snakes.
"We're looking at fostering any kind of wildlife that is native to Antelope Island or the Great Basin and that will survive out here," Larsson said.
If you want to watch wildlife, Larsson said it's best to get there early. The deer and antelope are generally out in the morning hours, but by early afternoon have sought shelter from the blistering heat.
Antelope Island is renowned for bird watching (some 257 species have been observed there), though bird watchers may find slim pickings on the north end. The best bird watching is near the springs along the eastern shore of the island - an area still closed to the public.
"You can still see peregrine falcons and shore birds on the north end," Larsson said. A family of peregrine falcons has taken up residence in a falcon tower installed by the DWR several years ago.
It remains to be seen how compatible man and wildlife will be, particularly potentially dangerous wildlife like buffalo. More importantly, there is concern that too many park visitors could disrupt the natural ecosystem that officials have tried to re-establish.
Officials have pledged to keep a wary eye on the number of visitors, and if numbers become detrimental to the park or the wildlife, "we can always close the gate," Larsson said.
Besides wildlife and beaches, Antelope Island will soon offer Great Salt Lake boaters new opportunities. Some 100 slips should be ready by September, and park officials say they will begin accepting names in about a month.
"We want to promote a lot of use of the Great Salt Lake on the north end," Larsson said. "It is a lovely lake to boat on. This winter, we'll be holding classes in boating and safety on the lake."
Park officials are still studying the island to determine what sort of man-made improvements to build. A visitors center is likely but is probably several years off.
"We're still in the planning stage right now," Larsson said. "We're having meetings and gathering testimony on the resource management plan for Antelope Island, and we want to involve the public in that process."
Visitors to Antelope Island must pay a $3 day-use fee and a $2 toll to Davis County for use of the causeway. Motorcyclists and bicyclists are charged a $2 day-use fee.
Facts About Antelope Island, largest of 8 in Great Salt Lake:
- At 28,022 acres, Antelope Island is the largest of eight islands in the Great Salt Lake.
- The island was named by early explorer John C. Fremont because of the large herd of antelope he found roaming there. The island has also been known as Paribina, Porpoise Island and Church Island.
- The first person to claim ownership of the island was the Ute chief Wanship.
- Fielding Garr constructed the first ranch house on the island in 1848. It remains the oldest continually lived-in home in Utah.
- The Mormon Church used the island to graze livestock. The sale of that livestock was used to fund the Perpetual Emigrating Company to help emigrants come to Utah.
- Brigham Young used the island to raise horses. By 1860, there were more than 1,000 horses on the island.
- Buffalo were introduced to the island in 1893 and were privately owned until 1981.
- The state purchased 2,005 acres on the north end of the island in 1969 for a state park. In 1981, the state purchased the rest of the island for $4.7 million.