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WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM

The very last place anyone would want to be caught wearing a dark, full-length wooly coat in the summertime - when temperature in the shade can melt plastic - is anywhere near here.

But near "here" is where they are, wearing their dark wooly coats and roaming around as carefree as any 2,000-pound wild animals with pin-sharp horns, the strength of a bulldozer and romance on the mind.Just how many buffalo - or more correctly, American bison - roam the plains and mountains southwest of Hanksville was formally documented earlier this week, when the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and area ranchers cooperated in an annual count.

There are, as closely as can possibly be made in an area covering some 1,600 square miles, about 360 buffalo . . . give or take one or two who might have opted for a shady spot under a juniper tree.

It's part of the agreement. Because of the delicate range conditions on the Henry Mountains and flatlands to the west, the DWR cannot have more than 275 buffalo on the range by winter. The fall hunt and old age will get numbers down to a tolerable level by then.

In the meantime, the bison on the Henrys roam about as they please in temperatures sometimes reaching 100 and beyond . . . and in the worst possible attire - those almost-black, wooly-like coats from nose to tail.

But that, says Jim Karpowitz, regional wildlife manager for the DWR and expert on the Henry bison, is only one of the things that has built the great respect he has for the animals.

"They survivors. They can adapt to any conditions. Sometimes they amaze even me," he said as he watched from the foothills of the Henrys down on the flats below.

"There were years, during the drought, when you couldn't find a blade of grass here. They adapted. The went to shrubs and other foods during the difficult times. Even in the worst year, we didn't find an animal lost to winter kill.

"We did have a drop in calf production. During good years, like this one, we'll get 40 to 50 calves per 100 cows. During the bad years it dropped to 20 calves. This year we should be back up to 40 to 50 calves."

The count takes place now because the buffalo are in the rut. Other times of the year, they're spread out and in small groups. Now they're starting to come together in herds. One of the largest herds counted numbered 57 animals.

Karpowitz says about 80 percent of the reproductive-age cows will calve.

The herd was introduced to the Henrys in 1941, when three bulls and 15 cows were brought in from Yellowstone and released in the San Rafael Desert. Eventually, the herd moved to the Burr Desert and then to the mountains, where it's remained. The buffalo will roam from the highest point in the mountain range, 11,000 feet, down to the lowest ravine on the flats, about 4,500 feet.

Surprisingly, at this time of year, when temperatures are at their hottest, many of the buffalo move to the flats where it's even hotter.

Karpowitz said they changed this pattern during the drought years, "and for some reason continue to do it."

Originally, the herd was limited to 200 animals post-hunt. The DWR recently acquired more grazing rights, and the number was increased to 275.

The higher number is also due in part to the management program initiated by the DWR. Part of it involved the clearing of trees to make room for grasses to grow. It worked. The years of drought did not etch themselves on the land permanently. This year, with the abundance of moisture, the desert bloomed, or in this case grew.

"Looking at it now, it's hard to imagine that there were years when there was nothing here. Nothing," Karpowitz added.

This herd is different from other herds.

It is the only free-roaming herd of buffalo in the lower 48 managed completely by hunting. That is, none of the animals are trapped and sold on the marketplace. The buffalo on Antelope Island are.

It is, too, a herd known for its extremely large buffalo. All of the records in the archer's book, Pope and Young, came from the Henry Mountains. The No. 7 entry in the world record book, Boone and Crocket, came from the Henrys and a new entry, not yet officially registered but expected to place in the top five, was taken last year off the Henrys.

Karpowitz says the bulls on the Henrys range from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds, where cows typically weigh about half, or between 800 and 1,000 pounds.

The delicate range conditions where the buffalo roam these days won't let the herd grow any larger than it is now.

But judging from the survey taken this week, it's apparent the buffalo like it, despite the hard times and the temperatures. They've adapted. They're survivors.