Arizona’s congressional delegation is leading an effort to allow hunters to shoot bison inside the Grand Canyon National Park in an attempt to cull a growing and unruly herd that park officials fear could damage one of America’s greatest natural treasures.
Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, along with Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), this week introduced a bill in both chambers designed to reduce the number of bison that have migrated over the last decade to Grand Canyon from nearby Kaibab National Forest and now threaten to damage archaeological sites, waterways, soils and vegetation.
The "Grand Canyon Bison Management Act" directs the Interior secretary within 180 days after the legislation is enacted to devise and publish a bison management plan "to reduce, through humane lethal culling by skilled public volunteers and by other nonlethal means, the population of bison in the Park that the Secretary determines are detrimental to the use of the Park."
The bill defines "skilled public volunteers" as individuals who have a valid Arizona hunting license or "other qualifications as the Secretary may require, after consultation with the Arizona Game and Fish Commission."
"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," McCain, Flake and Gosar said in a joint statement.
The bill has the support of some conservation and sporting groups.
"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," said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Jim Unmacht, president of Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation, said the bison herd at Grand Canyon "has long been a highly prized herd and one of the few remaining wild and free ranging herds in North America."
"The fact they now have learned that they are safe on the Grand Canyon National Park hasn’t diminished their allure to sportsmen," Unmacht said, adding that the latest bill is "a common-sense solution to allow sportsmen to not only help the [national park] manage this herd, but also allow them to hunt, harvest and retain the carcass in the process."
The growing bison herd on the North Rim of Grand Canyon has been a concern of the National Park Service and Arizona leaders for some time.
McCain last year unsuccessfully attempted to add an amendment to the "Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2014," S. 2363, that would have designated bison in Grand Canyon as an invasive species and allowed hunters to kill and "take home the full animal carcass."
NPS also last year announced it was initiating an environmental impact statement to guide development of its own bison management plan that is not expected to be completed until next year (Greenwire, April 3, 2014).
Ideally, the Park Service would like to relocate the herd, which is estimated to have as many as 600 animals, off the Grand Canyon park site to a place where populations can be maintained by the state of Arizona through hunting.
Bison have been in the area for more than a century. A rancher named Charles "Buffalo" Jones, who wanted to breed the buffalo with his cattle in an effort to create a superior livestock he called the "cattalo," first brought the bison to northern Arizona in 1906, according to the Park Service.
Jones’ breeding experiment was a failure, but the bison herd has been in the area ever since. The Arizona Game and Fish Department manages the herd, which for more than 40 years was confined to the House Rock Wildlife Area on Kaibab National Forest as part of an interagency agreement between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
But in 2000, the herd began migrating from this area to the top of the Kaibab Plateau and into Grand Canyon National Park in response to pressure from hunting, drought conditions and wildfires, according to the Park Service. The bison now spend most of their time in the park.
McCain, Flake and Gosar said in their statement that 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."
Flake discussed the possibility of using hunters to cull bison herds at the Grand Canyon last week during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing to discuss the "Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act."
During the hearing in which Fosburgh, the TRCP president, testified in favor of the sportsmen’s bill, Flake referred to the cattle-bison hybrids as "beefalo," and he asked Fosburgh about allowing hunters to cull bison at Grand Canyon.
"It saves the government money, it achieves the end result and it keeps people engaged, and it provides meat either for those hunters or for needy causes locally," Fosburgh said. "We as a [hunting] community ought to be used more often."
There are more than 269,000 hunters in Arizona, according to information from McCain’s office.
"Obviously we need to be supervised," Fosburgh said during the hearing. "You can’t have bad actors out there doing this stuff, but I think the agencies certainly have the ability to do that. They ought to use hunters as a resource."
Reporter Phil Taylor contributed.