Yellowstone National Park isn't the only national park with bison issues. Far to the south, Grand Canyon National Park officials are trying to better manage bison on the park's North Rim. Actually, they're trying to get the animals off the park's property on the North Rim.
The root of the problem dates back more than a century, to 1906, when a rancher by the name of Charles “Buffalo” Jones bought some bison to breed with his cows with hopes of producing "a superior, more robust breed of livestock, the 'cattalo.'"
Unfortunately for Buffalo Jones, the experiment was a failure. But not all the resulting "cattaloes" were removed from the federal lands on the Kaibab Plateau. Today, the descendants of this hybrid group are managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department as wild game, with a limited hunting season each year.
Unfortunately for the Park Service, since 2000 these hybrid bison have moved from the U.S. Forest Service lands up onto the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. "The herd now numbers more than 400 head, with the majority staying within park boundaries year round," park officials note. "Unfortunately these extremely large grazing animals are fouling sensitive and critical water sources, trampling and removing delicate vegetation, and compacting fragile soils."
During a teleconference Wednesday with reporters, Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said the cow-bison hybrids have caused grazing problems on the park's North Rim, impacts to lakeshores, and "there's been some archaeological impacts as well."
With hopes of reaching a solution to this problem, Grand Canyon officials are initiating a public scoping period for a bison management plan. Possible solutions range from fencing out the animals to culling, as is done in parks with elk population problems, such as Rocky Mountain National Park.
Genetically, these animals are nothing special, according to a list of "Frequently Asked Questions" the Park Service prepared. While officials on the conference call Wednesday couldn't break down, percentage-wise, the genetic makeup of these hybrids, the FAQ sheet noted that, "Recent genetic testing indicates the current population continues to have historic cattle genetics, though no outward physical characteristics of cattle have been observed in over 20 years. Genetic science also indicates that these bison do not possess the highly diverse or unique genetics for furthering the conservation of the species, compared to other wild bison herds."
Still, there are proponents for allowing the animals to remain on the North Rim inside the park.
"Cattle genes are now ubiquitous in North American bison: small amounts of cattle genes are found in the majority of national, state and private bison herds in the United States. While some of those bison are domesticated, others are wild despite gene contamination," reads an op-ed piece that ran in the Arizona Daily Sun. "The Grand Canyon herd should be genetically tested, and their behavior studied. Individuals of the Grand Canyon herd with excessive gene contamination or strong domestic behavior could be eliminated. Doing so would present a rare opportunity for Grand Canyon National Park to contribute to the genetic heritage of the America bison."
Nevertheless, Superintendent Uberuaga said the Park Service would like to see an agreement "to move them off park lands, onto Forest Service lands where they would be able to be huntable wildlife."
The first opportunity to begin to craft such a management plan will be during a 60-day public scoping period beginning when the Notice of Intent is published in the Federal Register. Scoping will provide the public and other interested parties the opportunity to participate early in identifying the range of issues to be considered when the NPS studies the potential environmental impacts of managing bison in the park; to identify topics and concerns that should be addressed in the EIS; and to bring forward any new information that NPS may not be aware of that would be useful in preparing the plan and EIS.
The Park Service also will host three in-person open house meetings during this comment period, as follows:
Monday, April 28
Kanab Middle School
690 S. Cowboy Way
Kanab, UT 84741
6 p.m.-8 p.m.
Tuesday, April 29
High Country Conference Center
201 W. Butler Ave
Flagstaff, AZ 86001
6 p.m.-8 p.m.
Wednesday, April 30
Arizona Game and Fish Department
4044 W. Black Canyon Boulevard
Phoenix, AZ 85086
6 p.m.-8 p.m.
Interested parties will be able to submit scoping comments either electronically on the PEPC web site (the preferred method of receiving comments); via U.S. Postal Service at Grand Canyon National Park, PO Box 129, Attn: Bison Management Plan EIS, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023; or at one of the in-person public meetings the NPS will be holding during the 60-day scoping period. Public comments will not be accepted during the web-based meetings; rather participants will be directed to the PEPC web site to enter their comments.