FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – A herd of bison that lives almost exclusively in the northern reaches of Grand Canyon National Park will not be the target of deadly removal this fall.
The park used skilled volunteers selected last year in a highly competitive and controversial lottery to kill bison, part of a tool kit to reduce the herd that has trampled pastures and archaeological sites on the canyon’s northern rim.
The introduction of the sound of gunfire and having people close to the bison was intended to push the huge animals back into the adjacent forest where they could be legally hunted. But the efforts had little effect.
“They just kind of moved away from where the activity happened, and sometimes they came back the next day,” said Greg Holm, program manager for the Grand Canyon wildfire program.
New studies have also shown that the herd is closer to the target of about 200, from an estimated 500 to 800 animals when the park approved a plan to rapidly reduce the herd size. The park is now working with other agencies and groups on a long-term management plan for the bison, an animal that was declared America’s National Mammal in 2016 and is depicted on the National Park Service logo.
Hundreds of years of hunting and a genetic bottleneck allowed the animals that were once extinct in the tens of millions to sustain nearly 11,000 bison in about a dozen states, including the largest herd on public land in Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone, which covers 3,500 square miles in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, is also developing a new management plan for the approximately 5,500 bison there. It is working with Native American tribes, government agencies and other groups to find ways to reduce the number of bison sent to the slaughter.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota regularly rounds up bison using helicopters and corrals, then transfers some of the animals to tribes, other states, and national parks. Without natural predators, bison herds can grow rapidly and put a strain on resources, the park says.
The Grand Canyon’s herd did not always live within the boundaries of the park, where they can be seen along the highway leading to the entrance to the North Rim. The bison are descendants of the bison brought to Arizona in the 1900s as part of a crossbreeding experiment with livestock.
The animals increasingly realized that they could be hunted in the adjacent national forest and took refuge in the national park. Hunting is not allowed in national parks, but the agency has the authority to kill animals that damage natural resources, with the help of park personnel or volunteers.
Most of the Grand Canyon bison has been removed by rounding them up and transferring them to Native American tribes who have tried to restore herds to their land. A controversial pilot project last fall sought skilled volunteers to shoot up to 12 of the animals.
More than 45,000 people signed up for the opportunity. In the end, 10 were picked and they were able to kill four bison. Although the animals are huge, they are fast and agile and can hide among thick trees.
Grand Canyon officials say they won’t be repeating the program this fall, but it won’t be ruled out as a resource in the future. Another attempt at corralling is planned.
The latest bison population estimate based on aerial surveys and tracking equipment shows 216 bison on the vast Kaibab Plateau, according to Grand Canyon National Park. Bodies that manage land and wildlife in Arizona’s far north and study bison movement are meeting in July to discuss the long-term plan.
Part of that discussion includes creating more gaps in the state-sanctioned bison hunting seasons outside Grand Canyon National Park to see if bison will move beyond the boundaries, said Larry Phoenix, an Arizona Game and Fish Department regional supervisor.
Meanwhile, the Game and Fish Department is seeking approval to upgrade fencing, livestock guards and watersheds to extend reach for another herd of bison in far northern Arizona. The state imported 15 bison yearlings from a private nature preserve in Montana in late 2017 and said the herd now needs more room to grow.
Phoenix is convinced that these bison will not follow the others to the Grand Canyon, mainly because the animals do not know that the other herd exists.
Environmental groups are skeptical fences that can prevent them from wandering and adding to the overall bison population in the region where they were difficult and costly to contain.
They are asking the US Forest Service to conduct an in-depth review of the proposal that will take into account climate change and its impacts on plants and animals such as the chisel-toothed kangaroo rat.