Grand Canyon Bison Hunt Underway, But Not Without Controversy

A large brown bison
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Earlier this year, news emerged that the bison herd surrounding the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park was growing at a pace that currently has them headed towards overpopulation. With no predators in the area, the only way to keep the herd in balance is to hunt them.

So based on the scientific data and the proven wildlife management techniques that have shaped the incredible legacy of wildlife conservation in North America, the National Park Service decided to manage the bison herd by hosting a highly regulated and intensively monitored bison hunt.

That proved to be an incredibly popular decision. More than 45,000 people volunteered to be one of just 12 lucky hunters selected for one of the tags. Applicants were also required to meet a variety of other requirements, and now that they have been selected, the hunters are undergoing additional training by the National Park Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Joelle Baird, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Park Service, spoke with AZ Central to provide even more details on how the hunters were selected and the criteria used to ensure they are fit for the task.

“The biggest factor that the park service analyzed and used for the criteria and the interviews is skill and shooting. These are very large animals and so skill in shooting and proficiency in firearms is pretty key.

Ultimately, also a big consideration is backcountry experience. The North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is very remote and has very rugged and steep terrain. You have lots of vegetation and brush. So backcountry experience and not just backcountry navigation but orientation is also one of the factors that we looked at. 

The North Rim is 8,000 feet above sea level, so the ability to travel in difficult terrain and being in good physical fitness is really crucial here. The fact that we aren’t having mechanized or motorized vehicles to haul out the animal, they have to be in very good physical shape to help hauling.”

However, the future of that hunt was called into question just a few days before the first series of hunts was set to take place.

According to the NRA Hunters Leadership Forum, several anti-hunting organizations and several members of Congress submitted a formal letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland outlining concerns over the potential hunt and instead encouraging non-lethal and highly costly alternative management techniques. The letter was submitted on September 17th. Meanwhile, the first hunt was scheduled to begin on September 20th.

The presence of such large animals on the landscape is having deleterious effects on native vegetation and biodiversity throughout the ecologically rich area and damaging watering holes other species rely on and historic archaeological sites as well. The Grand Canyon bison herd is estimated to be somewhere between 400 – 600 animals, and The Park has set a goal of reducing the herd size to roughly 200 animals.

There are limited bison hunting opportunities elsewhere in Arizona. This year, the Arizona Department of Game and Fish issued 67 bison tags for hunts in an area just outside the National Park, where hunts for an additional 12 bison are set to occur. 

Hunting remains a sound option for managing the buffalo herd. According to a 2016 research study, using hunting within National Parks to help meet specific wildlife management goals for managing overabundant game species whose populations have grown to exceed their carrying capacity within parks where hunting has multiple benefits.

The same report also indicated that in previous instances of volunteer hunters being used to help control elk populations within National Parks, park employees considered the volunteers to be valuable assets and vocal supporters of both the park system and wildlife conservation.

The letter submitted to Secretary Haaland by the anti-hunting extremists outlined only one argument for prohibiting the hunt, insinuating that since hunting has not been allowed in the area that the Grand Canyon National Park now occupies in more than 100 years, that it should not be allowed now.

It’s a flimsy argument at best, considering that before the establishment of the Park, people had been hunting in that area since before recorded history.

Hunting, and bison hunting, in particular, are deeply woven into the cultural fabric of America, and considering the species was once on the brink of extinction, any opportunity to hunt the species in a sustainable manner should be celebrated as both a conservation victory and a cultural celebration.

That’s something that the Park Service does recognize, according to Baird.

“Bison are revered animals, and to hunters that are very familiar with the large game in North America, bison is one of the largest land mammals that we have. 

I think there is a lot of appeal and a lot of draw to participate in an operation like this because of the history of bison here in North America. And you don’t find that everywhere in the world. It is uniquely North American and uniquely in the West as well.”

Bison once roamed the plains of North America from Mexico to Canada in seemingly innumerable numbers, but by 1900 only a few hundred bison remained due to a variety of ecological and management issues. Nevertheless, thanks to intentional efforts led by conservation leaders in the early 20th century, the bison remains an iconic symbol of America today. 

The bison hunts in the Grand Canyon are a trendies way to celebrate that conservation success story, and they are scheduled to take place through the end of October, with 3 hunters going afield each week. Each hunter is permitted to bring 3-5 additional folks with them into the field to help haul out meat should the hunt be successful. 

Hunters will only be permitted to harvest female bison because the removal of cows has a greater impact on long-term population reduction. It also assuages any misconceptions that this is a “trophy hunt” of any kind. Cow bison are also much smaller than bulls, making the task of hauling meat out of the field more manageable. Male bison weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can stand almost 6 feet tall. Female bison typically weigh 800-1,200 pounds and are 4 to 5 feet tall.

If a hunter successfully shoots a bison, they will then send in their GPS coordinates to park staff, who will be on hand to assist with field dressing the bison and transporting it back to camp. Off-road vehicles will not be permitted to haul out the bison, and all meat must be packed out on afoot, which is sure to be an arduous task, and the hunters are prepared to work into the night hauling 50 to 70-pound packs of meat out of the field and back to camp well into the night. 

Hunting is not the only method being used to manage the Grand Canyon Bison herd, though. The Park has also established a partnership with the Intertribal Buffalo Council, representing 69 tribes in 19 states. Since 2019 the 88 bison have been transferred to 5 different tribes interested in relocating the animals to their tribal lands. 

Bison had significant cultural value to Native American tribes across the country and were viewed as an embodiment of living free and in harmony with nature. The historical slaughter of more than 60 million bison as the western frontier was settled decimated the species and took a toll on the cultural spirit of the tribes that valued and relied on the bison. Plans to help resettle bison on tribal lands is a small step that will hopefully go a long towards restoring some of that spirit. 

Though extremely rare, white bison were of particular spiritual value to Native American tribes. White bison were considered sacred to many tribes, and the birth of a white bison represented a sign of peace and good fortune from the Great Spirit.

Those interested in seeing a white bison for themselves should consider making a trip to the Dogwood Canyon Nature Park in Missouri’s Ozark mountains. The special white bison that roams Dogwood Canyon is named Takoda, which is a Sioux word for “Friend of Everyone,” and the Park’s guided tour through the Ozark and into Arkansas gives visitors a chance to see the white bison for themselves. 

For a more in-depth look at how the National Park Service is working with the Intertribal Buffalo Council to restore bison to their historical range and celebrate the potential cultural revival of bison hunting, check out this short film. 

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