In this guest post, Trudy Balcom shares the story of Leslie Soderquist’s bison hunt.
When I first met Leslie Soderquist in 2002, she was participating in the Olympic Torch Relay for the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Tim and I cheered Leslie and others runners in the Torch Relay parade as it passed through Idaho Falls while on a visit there with sister-in-law Penny. I admire anyone who has the gumption to be a runner. Never has been my thing.Now, as another Winter Games draws near, I have had the opportunity to get to know Leslie better. And what a pleasure it has been. We first met up with her a few weeks ago when she skied up to Penny’s cabin at The Ranch, with her dog Will.
Most women make to-do lists to help them stay organized:
When fall rolls around, Leslie’s to-do list looks something like this:
Leslie Soderquist is a wife and mother of three grown sons, a career woman, an athlete, an accomplished outdoorswoman and an avid hunter.
As with many men hunters, Leslie’s interest in the sport and the outdoors began early. Growing up in the arid sagebrush country of south-central Idaho’s Magic Valley, she and twin sister Julie were tomboys. A nearby creek, gravel pits and the sagebrush where she rode horses were favorite haunts. As a teenager, she became something of an amateur raptor rehabilitator. She kept kestrels in an attempt to become a falconer, and then people started to bring her injured birds to care for, including owls and hawks. She began hunting in an effort to feed her birds. Every afternoon after school she would scour the brush around her family’s rural home, hunting pesky English sparrows and starlings to feed her raptors.
“It was never told to my sister and I that girls didn’t hunt. We weren’t raised that way,” Soderquist explained. Later, her interest in wildlife and wild places led her to complete a B.S. in zoology, although she went on to a different kind of career.
Throughout a lifetime of hunting, Leslie has successfully hunted most of the West’s big game species—elk, antelope, moose and muledeer. For the past 14 years Leslie has applied for a permit to hunt bison (buffalo) in the Henry Mountains of south-central Utah.
The Henry Mountain wild bison herd originated from cows and bulls culled from the Yellowstone herd in 1941. It is one of only four free roaming, genetically pure herds in North America, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife. A herd of about 275 animals currently roams a rugged, remote two-million acre wilderness area in south central Utah, bordered on the southwest by Capital Reef National Park.
Fewer than 100 bison hunting permits are issued annually, and only one bison permit per person per lifetime is allowed. Last fall, Soderquist’s name was finally drawn for a bison permit.
Although Soderquist had not hunted bison herself, she had participated in two previous successful Henry Mountain bison hunts—her twin sister Julie’s hunt in 1999, and then her husband, John, drew a permit in 2005. Julie’s hunt was notable because she brought her seven month-old son, Finn, to hunting camp with her. Leslie and Julie’s mother and and her mother’s good friend served as hunting camp nannies. Both her sister and her husband’s hunt concluded within less than four days, so she thought she knew what to expect.But she almost got buffaloed.The Henry Mountain country is rugged. “It’s sort of a red-rock mesa country, with canyons, and these [high] mountains that seem out of place,” Leslie describes. The landscape of the Henry’s does not evoke the Great Plains stronghold of the bison that most people associate with the animal. At the lower elevations, it is a scrub desert, and mountains rise to over 11,000 feet in the central part of the region. These tough critters live where there is only 18 inches of precipitation or less per year.Leslie and her husband John set up their hunting camp on Nov. 30, with sister Julie and her family in tow, as well as another friend. They had a wall tent with a wood stove, and expected to be pretty comfortable. The weather was foggy, then it snowed. The first two days of the hunt was spent hiking and driving the dirt roads through the desert on the west end near the boundary with Capital Reef National Park. Everyone helped search for the bison. The truck got stuck in tire-slurping grey mud. “We saw nothing, no tracks,” Leslie said.Then bitter cold blasted into region and then didn’t budge. The temperatures sunk below zero, and John stayed up through the night to feed the fire. After a minus 12 degree reading on the second night, John suggested that they move to a motel in the town of Hanksville at the north end of the region. That meant a long drive back to the Henrys’ every day in the dark of early morning, something they hadn’t planned on.
Each day they drove or hiked looking for tracks or sign of the bison herd, and each day they came up empty-handed. When they did find tracks, they could not be sure they were made by bison. The Bureau of Land Management allows ranchers to graze cattle on the same lands used by the wild herd.
On the ninth day of the hunt, they hiked into a place called Cave Flats. “It just looked like good country. Then we found tracks. We learned to tell the difference between the bison tracks and cattle tracks. The bison tracks include prints of different sizes, because young animals are traveling with the herd. The bison tracks are a little bit more round, too,” Soderquist explained. They followed the tracks for as long as they could, but saw no bison. Leslie was feeling pretty dejected. “It’s my turn and there’s no bison anywhere,” she thought.
Time was running out. She only had four days left before the hunt was over. John suggested they hire a guide—something she had only done once before. Sister Julie had had been helping from afar by talking with area ranchers and guides, she suggested they contact Fremont River Guides of Bicknell, Utah. They’re primarily a fishing guide service, but they also help bison hunters in the Henry Mountains. Guide Shawn Saunders thought he knew where the bison could be found.
Shawn knew it would be difficult to keep up with the bison on foot. So Shawn called West Taylor of Wild West Mustang Ranch of Fremont, Utah, to bring in horses so they could follow the herd, and hopefully, pack out some meat.
On Dec. 11, Shawn and West met Leslie and John at Sweetwater Junction at the west edge of the Henrys’. It took some additional effort to chain-up the truck and horse trailer, drive further into the backcountry and get the horses unloaded. Leslie, West and Shawn finally rode out at about 1 p.m.
Of the three of them, Leslie had more experience tracking, stalking and observing wildlife, so she felt on equal footing with her guides.
Temperatures hovered around zero. They followed bison tracks toward a canyon, but then they saw that the tracks were coming out of the canyon toward Cave Flats. They stopped for a late lunch, feeling dejected. Then Shawn spotted the bison herd on a far off ridge. The daylight hours where growing short—it was 3 p.m. Shawn suggested they let the bison bed down and go after them again the next day.”I decided to go after them then, since we knew where they were,” Leslie explained. She was thinking of her son Graham, whom she taught to hunt. She knew he wouldn’t quit, and she wasn’t going to either.As they rode closer to the herd, Leslie told the guides to tie up the horses so they could creep up on foot. She felt they were moving too fast and too close, and was she fearful of spooking the herd.They settled in a secluded spot to watch the herd. Leslie’s permit was for a cow only, so she had to select and shoot carefully. “We just studied them for a bit. It can be hard to tell cows from young bulls,” she explained.After watching them for a while she spotted a cow she thought she could hit. “I found one, she was not real big, but I knew it was a cow. She turned broadside and that’s when I shot,” she explained. The cow took only a few steps and went down. It was a clean kill. The rest of the herd bolted. She had shot the cow at 325 yards with a Browning A-bolt 7mm rifle, her favorite gun, which she traded a used BMW for years ago.
How do you feel after bagging a bison and a long, cold, tough hunt?”I think the feeling of success and accomplishment is the first thing, and respect and appreciation for the animal. Hunting is a very complicated experience. If you work hard at it, that makes it all the better. You’re earning that animal. One thing you never want to do is waste an animal, and with the shooting you [have] to do a good job.” No doubt Leslie earned her bison with this hunt.In retrospect, she also sees the hunt as something of a learning experience. “You have to remember to be flexible when things don’t go your way,” she added
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