Where the buffalo roam is wreaking havoc, and the return of buffalo hunters may be the solution.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is arguably the most spectacular and scenic area of the Canyon, the place visitors go to see and feel what the “true” American West was like. The North Rim is harder to access, less subject to human traffic, and is home to a high elevation subalpine climate of beautiful wildflower and grassland meadows. The area is reportedly also being decimated by, according to Arizona legislators, an “exploding bison population that continues to damage and overgraze the Grand Canyon’s natural resources.”
The bison are grazing meadows to the ground, damaging soil and other fragile vegetation, and fouling water sources. Up to now the National Park Service response to the issue of problem bison has not proven effective.
“As long as there’s no lethal removal of bison, our ability to remove them is greatly diminished,” said Craig McMullen, of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Bison in the park are protected from hunters, but the Park Service itself has the authority to cull animals it deems problematic. Unfortunately, this situation isn’t the same as culling one or two problem animals. Rather, it involves at least a couple hundred big bison, according to some experts.
The NPS Bison Management Plan states, “Where bison are found on NPS lands, they are managed as needed to ensure other resources and values are protected.” That means that the Park Service views bison in the same context as any other wildlife, which subjects bison conservation and management to the parameters of the overall mission of the National Park Service. This in turn means that the NPS is somewhat limited in what it can do when killing large numbers of animals is called for.
Additionally, the meat, head and hides of bison killed by Park Service personnel cannot be claimed, with the meat being turned over for distribution to other agencies and charities, which itself can also be a complicated and cumbersome project.
The Core of the Issue
The herd has few natural predators other than humans. Hunters can pursue bison in areas outside the national parks by purchasing permits and tags from the state, but the herd of around 600 animals rarely if ever leaves the park.
With 1,900 square miles of park territory in which to roam, and prime grazing land to support them, the bison have no reason to wander outside park boundaries. Arizona resident hunters pay $1,100 for a tag to take one bull bison while non-residents pay $5,415 for a bull tag. McMullen confirmed that money raised from tag fees goes directly back into wildlife conservation.
Arizona legislators – Republican Congressman Paul A. Gosar, D.D.S. and Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake – have subsequently introduced a measure into the House and Senate titled the Grand Canyon Bison Management Act that would allow hunting in the park proper. The bill was introduced on March 18th and would also allow hunters – “skilled public volunteers,” according to the language of the bill – to keep their kills.
The three Arizona legislators said in a statement released after the measure’s introduction, “The animals wreaking havoc on Grand Canyon National Park are no ordinary bison. They are cross-breeds between bison and cattle that continue to destroy the natural vegetation and pristine lands that make the Park a national treasure and destination for millions of visitors. Our legislation advances a common-sense proposal that would cull these unmanageable herds and eliminate federal barriers by allowing volunteer hunters to take home the meat.”
The Other Side
There has, predictably, been some opposition to the proposed legislation from various animal rights factions and anti-hunting groups. That opposition unfortunately fails to consider how to economically and efficiently address the damage to pristine habitat and existing wildlife that a larger-than-sustainable bison herd causes.
Finding the Answer
The solution presented in the Grand Canyon Bison Management Act appears to create a win-win situation for all concerned parties: the National Park System, conservationists concerned about maintaining our valuable ecosystems, hunters who respect and cherish an iconic big game animal, and the bison themselves, whose unsustainable population growth may ultimately be detrimental to the entire herd.
The bill has, however, received support from seven bipartisan co-sponsors, conservation groups and outdoor sportsmen’s organizations.
Jim Unmacht, President of the Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation, praised the legislation: “The proposed legislation is consistent with the best science, will prevent undue degradation of Park resources and also provide sportsmen with an opportunity to harvest an iconic American species. It will also generate funding for habitat conservation and management, which is key to our mission of guaranteeing sportsmen quality places to hunt and fish.”