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Grand Canyon Officials: Bison Herd Too Big For The Park

Tourists and bison
Grand Canyon National Park
handout | agency
Tourists watch the bison near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Grand Canyon Officials: Bison Damaging Park Resources

Grand Canyon Officials: Bison Damaging Park Resources

Courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

Tourists watch the bison near the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

Yellowstone National Park has long been home to the iconic bison. But since the late 1990s the animal has also made the Grand Canyon its home. That herd has grown too big and is now overgrazing park land, draining already low water resources and trampling through archaeological sites.

In the 1800s settlers killed 50 million bison. They were all but wiped out by uncontrolled hunting. Toward the end of the century, Charles “Buffalo” Jones brought a herd by train to northern Arizona to breed them with cattle. He called them “cattalo.”

But Jones gave up when the bison wouldn’t stay where he wanted them. In 1926 the state bought the herd and allowed them to be hunted. In recent years that herd has found refuge in Grand Canyon National Park.

Near the north rim, Grand Canyon’s science director Martha Hahn pointed to a hoof print the size of my hand in fresh mud. We recently went in search of the shaggy beasts. We checked first at a small watering hole.

Courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park

There's no hunting allowed inside park boundaries so the herd has tripled in size since it moved there a little over a decade ago.

“The lake’s pretty low,” Hahn said. “Typically the water is right up here to the bankside. But the interesting part’s going to be, where will the bison go when the water’s gone?”

The park, with the help of students, is researching the impact of the bison on vegetation. They’ve fenced off some of the long grass next to the lake.

“If you look over here on the fenced side, you can see how thick and matted the grass is where they aren’t grazing,” Hahn said. “And then you can see where it’s gone and you just have bare soil. A very big difference. And so the question is with this bare soil will anything come back? Most likely not.”

Laurel Morales

There have been several bison-vehicle collisions at the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

And that’s a problem. Hahn said damaged vegetation causes a chain reaction that could eventually harm other species like the endangered California condor and the Mexican spotted owl.

The bison also like to wallow or roll around in the dirt, but a 2,000-pound animal leaves small craters. And far from hunters the herd has tripled in size to about 350 animals.

Determined to find the bison, we followed their tracks through a thicket of pine trees to an open meadow.

The bison eluded us again. Hahn explained the animal is quicker than you might expect running at speeds of 40 miles per hour and jumping on their squatty legs seven feet in the air over downed trees and fences.

Laurel Morales

Grand Canyon science director Martha Hahn stands near a small lake where the bison like to drink.

The park service and other agencies held a recent public meeting in Flagstaff on the bison’s future. Kitty Marr, a mule wrangler on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, has watched the herd multiply over the last two decades.

“I love the buffalo,” Marr said. “I think they’re beautiful. They’re majestic and they’re part of our culture. But they just don’t belong there because they’re destroying our resources. They need to do something before our park turns into a mess.”

Marr suggested relocating some and killing others giving the meat to the nearby tribes.

Many sportsmen would like special permission to hunt the animal in the park. Free roaming bison are considered a rare trophy worth big points in private hunting clubs.

Laurel Morales

One side of the fence has tall grass where the buffalo can't graze. The other side has patches of bare soil.

“It’s pretty unique, it’s one of the harder tags to get because the numbers are low for free-ranging huntable bison herds,” said Carl Lutch, Arizona Game and Fish wildlife program manager.

The Arizona Game and Fish charges more to hunt bison than any other animal. It costs $1,000 for a bison tag and $4,000 if you live out of state.

Park Service officials hope to have a final plan in two years.

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.