Grand Canyon Bison Might Become Hunting Trophies

The National Park Service finds the species has historical roots in Arizona, but hundreds need to be removed to make the herd sustainable.
A herd of bison at Grand Canyon National Park. (Photo: James Marvin Phelps/Flickr)
Jul 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

A report from the National Park Service has granted the 600 or so bison roaming near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon “native” status but also claims that there are too many in the region, so the herd must be thinned.

That’s good and bad news for the species.

First, the designation as native wildlife means the option for wildlife officials to completely remove the animals from the park is off the table. But the report suggests that hundreds need to be removed to get the herd down to a “sustainable” level—estimated between 80 and 200 individuals.

In its findings, the National Park Service acknowledges the bison living in the region descend from a herd brought to northern Arizona by a rancher in the early 1900s who attempted to crossbreed the bison with cattle.

That determination has led groups such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to question whether bison should be in the region at all, as the 2,000-pound mammals can have negative impacts on the landscape, other native wildlife, and archaeological sites.

The National Park Service’s proposed range for wild free-ranging bison at Kaibab National Forest, House Rock Wildlife Area, and Grand Canyon National Park. (Map: Intermountain Region Geographic Resources Division)

But digging deeper into history—some 11,000 years or so—wildlife officials concluded from archaeological records that the region has long been home to small, dispersed herds of bison, and the park should be considered the edge of the animal’s historic range.

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Glenn Plumb, acting chief of science and resource management at the Grand Canyon, said now that bison are regarded as native wildlife and not an exotic species, the National Park Service can manage them under its wildlife policy for native wildlife.

“We’re not going to manage them to get rid of all of them,” Plumb told Grand Canyon News. “There will be no hunting in Grand Canyon National Park. Long-term hunting will continue, as I understand, on National Forest lands.”

The end goal would be to keep a “very low” population density in a 330-square-mile area across Grand Canyon National Park and the Kaibab National Forest lands.

Still, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch feels that the report gives park officials the leeway to allow hunting, as one management option listed in the report notes the opportunity for “skilled volunteers” to lethally remove bison in the park, allowing for up to 15 percent of the herd to be killed annually until the goal population of under 200 is reached.

“This plan would turn Grand Canyon into a game farm managed for the benefit of Arizona Game and Fish,” Ruch said in a statement, claiming that “skilled volunteers” is a euphemism for hunters who are selected by the park. “Slaughter should not become a routine park wildlife management strategy.”

Craig McMullen, supervisor at the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s regional office in Flagstaff, said his office is pleased with the report’s conclusions.

“The bison are a valuable native component of the experience for visitors to the Kaibab Plateau, but there are too many right now,” McMullen said in a statement. “The ultimate goal is to manage this important bison population at appropriate levels for the enjoyment, appreciation, and use of the public.”

Identical bills introduced in the House and the Senate this year by Rep. Paul Gosar and Sen. John McCain (both Arizona Republicans) would pave the way for state-licensed hunters to kill bison within the park’s boundaries and harvest the meat. The bills tout the hunts as a cost-saving measure that would expedite delayed action from the National Park Service.

“We can’t afford to allow more devastation to be caused to the park while the Park Service twiddles their thumbs trying to come up with an expensive plan,” Gosar said in a statement. “We have a plan, and it puts Arizona hunters to work doing what they love, accomplishing this important task for free.”

If Congress were to pass the bills, known as the Grand Canyon Bison Management Act, they would have to be integrated into the National Park Service’s plan.

Arizona permits hunting for bison at the House Rock Wildlife Area just outside the park boundaries. Permits are highly sought-after, but opportunities to kill bison have diminished, as the animals are spending more time within the hunting-free confines of Grand Canyon National Park.