Bison are flourishing, but not always in the right place

  • Glenn Rink


Though images of bison aren't the first thing that pop into mind when you think of Grand Canyon, the animals that lumber like walking boulders have become a significant attraction for visitors to the North Rim.

The bison are part of a herd that was introduced to the Kaibab Plateau in the early 1900s, courtesy of ranchers who wanted to toughen up their cattle herds by mixing in some bison genes. Back then, bison were stuck in a genetic bottleneck with, at one point, fewer than 110 animals in existence. Things are different now: Bison are in no danger of extinction, and the animals are flourishing with a current population of half a million.

The Arizona State Game and Fish Department manages the bison at Grand Canyon for both hunting and wildlife viewing. Game managers estimate the herd of 300 as growing by 10 percent every year, a rate that takes into account deaths by hunting, encounters with vehicles and natural causes.  At this rate, the herd should double in size every seven years.

At first glance, the thrill of seeing bison at the North Rim fits right in with the mission of the National Park Service. National parks were created with a mandate to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein..." But there's a catch: All these bison were introduced; they were never among the wildlife that came with the park.

Meanwhile, Grand Canyon National Park harbors unique plant communities that don't cope well with animals that can weigh 2,200 pounds.

When park botanist Nancy Brian compiled a list of 63 "special status" plants found in Arizona in 2000, 24 of them could be found on the Kaibab Plateau. Recent work indicates that another seven species should be added to this list, and that all seven are endemic to the Kaibab Plateau or Grand Canyon, meaning that they grow nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, the places many of these Kaibab plants need to survive -- the most sensitive springs, meadows and ponds -- are also the places most likely to be harmed by bison that eat, trample and wallow in them.  After bison linger in an area for a while, it tends to resemble well-used ranch land.

Bison impacts also extend deep into the Grand Canyon itself.  Springs 1,000 feet below the rim create unusual habitat for rare plants, and those areas have become damaged by bison trampling and browsing.  As they move around, the bison create multiple trails at many remote overlooks on the west side of the North Rim.  The condition of these steep slopes is not unlike the condition of the Tonto Platform before the Park Service removed wandering burros from the park.

Here's my solution: Just as park managers rounded up burros and moved them out of the park a few decades ago, managers now need to remove bison from the North Rim. It will not be an easy job, to say the least. In 2005, the Park Service hired a group of cowboys to round up the offending bison. Ten days in the saddle yielded no animals, a failure reminiscent of the drive to remove deer back in the 1920s.  A sturdy fence could block movement of bison into the park, or onto sensitive areas, but would likely be prohibitively expensive to build and maintain. A fence might also harm other wildlife and destroy wilderness values. Another solution would be to push most of the bison out of the region and cull any animals still found on the Kaibab Plateau. This, of course, might be politically unpalatable.

Ron Sieg, who manages the bison herd for the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, says there's just no easy solution to the bison problem. So he proposes finding the option that's "least bad." Park advocates will want to see Grand Canyon protected at all costs, hunters will not want to lose their chance to hunt bison "in the wild," and animal-rights advocates will insist that bison must not be harmed.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for park managers is to take any action, and to commit to it, even if it means removing one of the country's important symbols from one of its iconic parks. But the Game and Fish Department needs to stop a bad situation from getting much, much worse.

Bison may be great to look at on the North Rim, but they don't belong there and it's time they went.

Glenn Rink is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, He is a botanical consultant in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Grand Canyon Bison
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Jul 20, 2010 12:51 PM
A major reason why the herd keeps growing is the bisons' use of park boundaries to elude hunters. The Park Service could solve the problem by allowing bison to be hunted inside the park with a special permit and under close supervision. If the Park Service is simply too dogmatically opposed to recreational hunting inside a national park - even for conservation purposes - they could at least hire contractors to shoot or harass the bison when they attempt to use the park as a refuge.

There is also some disagreement as to whether bison are truly non-natives. The only historical record of bison being in the area prior to their importation by a rancher is images of bison on rock art painted by Native Americans centuries ago. It's possible the painters were migrants who had known bison from elsewhere, or that bison used to inhabit the area but had died out locally for whatever reason. One thing is sure: the habitat is suitable for bison today. Otherwise they couldn't persist there.
Arizona's beefalo invade Grand Canyon NP
R Rice
R Rice
Jul 20, 2010 02:43 PM
Genetic testing of the Arizona's Kaibab Plateau buffalo herd revealed that there are domestic cattle genes present in the herd. That should be expected when ranchers cross bread with domestic works both ways. If wild buffalo ever did range onto the north rim of the Grand Canyon they didn't have domestic cattle genes on board. These animals are exotics not a repaitriated native.

While buffalo are a wary animal that has evolved quite nicely but have never a match for humans. They don't go into the park to avoid being shot, they're not smart enough to do that. The go into the park because of its abundant forage. On the National Forest Lands of the Kaibab Plateau bison compete with large numbers of domestic cattle for forage. The bison can easily jump or break down the three wire fence that keep the cattle out of the park. There is no grazing in the park so there is abundant forage and bison are smart enough to detect that's where the best meal is.

Areas designated by Congress as National Parks have never permitted hunting and that's not likely to change, it's not the "Park Service", it's the mandate. National Preserves and other speciality designations may permit hunting but not National Parks. There are ways and opertunites to get the buffalo out of the north rim of Grand Canyon NP and still have hunting options on National Forest lands.
Bison in Grand Canyon N.P.
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Jul 20, 2010 06:25 PM
Mr. Rice is correct that domestic cattle genes are present in the herd. Although you can't see it by looking at them, I believe about a third of the animals have cattle genes that can be detected by scientific testing. The majority do not.

While the enabling legislation creating most national parks does prohibit hunting (Grand Teton and a couple others being exceptions), Congress can do anything it wants to do, including allowing limited hunting to achieve land stewardship objectives. If Congress can pass a Wild Horse and Burro Act that expressly orders lethal removal of excess animals and then later forbid lethal removal by attaching no-kill provisions to BLM's annual funding authorization, Congress could just as easily authorize lethal removal of bison. I'm sure Congress would do so if the Park Service asked them to.

This issue like most others becomes an ink blot test where observers inject their personal world views into causes and solutions. One faction traces the problem to a state wildlife agency catering to hunters and to public grazing practices that make national park land more attractive to bison. Others like myself see a Park Service so rigid that it would rather sacrifice the resource entrusted to it than compromise its hands-off management philosophy and risk offending animal sentimentalists.

You won't see the Park Service take aggressive action against feral horses and burros either. They'll whine about effects on park lands from what BLM isn't doing on adjacent lands, but they won't demand get control of the situation and take effective action to protect the habitat. The Park Service believes in managing only people, not animals, and in their bureaucracy and among the people who most actively support national parks, killing animals is politically incorrect.

Managed National Parks
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Jul 20, 2010 09:49 PM
Larry, really, all National Parks, with the possible exception of the large National Park-Preserve sites in Alaska, are "managed," of course. While animal-rights activists can do some good, they tend to focus the so-called "charismatic megafauna," of which bison are certainly members.
Over run by elk and hunters
Lou Fitz
Lou Fitz
Jul 20, 2010 01:52 PM

Don't forget about the elk on the South Rim. Many feel they're an introduced species as well. There's certainly no historical evidence to show elk were here in any great number.

The USFS and AGFD keep building watering-holes just to the south of the Park boundary.

The elk feed on park plants, are tamed by park visitors and then slaughtered by hunters as they leave the park in search of water. There really aren't any sources of water available to them in the park.

The highways to the south of the park are littered with the carnage of dead animals being run over by the visitors driving up to the Canyon.

Enjoy your visit!
a dead animal every mile
marty weiss
marty weiss
Jul 24, 2010 11:10 AM
Since you noted the "carnage", I thought I'd ask if anybody has any ideas.
As a long-haul trucker, I saw at least one and often more than one dead animal at the roadside every mile of every road I traveled. Often if the victim was a racoon, another racoon came to help the injured and was also killed. Dogs, birds, turtles, possums, coyotes, hawks, vultures, deer, all lying dead at the side of the road. I got so disgusted I started stopping to move the turtles to safety and trying to rescue the dogs, one of whom lives with me now and is a fine companion.
Anybody have any ideas on how to stop this carnage? Literally millions of animals are dying simply because they don't comprehend vehicles and roads. As "humans" I believe we have a responsibility to try to stop the senseless killing.
a dead animal every mile
R Rice
R Rice
Jul 28, 2010 07:12 PM
Get all the trucks and cars off the road! That will stop the "carnage" pure and simple. That is not going to be an acceptable solution to most. Have "open season 300m either side of center line" won't cut it either. Large number of road kills are usually the result of high traffic volumes (vehicle) and/or large resident or large transient populations of wildlife. There are some mitigation efforts that help but the basic problem is there are too many of "us". Look at what Canada has done developing wildlife corridors which can work but at huge environmental and tax expenses. We have wildlife managers that can help mitigate (but not eliminate) this problem if they have the budgetary support to do the job. I don't think we as taxpayers have the will to support it.


R. Rice
Bison in House Rock Valley
Renee Galeano-Popp
Renee Galeano-Popp
Jul 23, 2010 10:15 AM
You state that the bison there are introduced. Arent they more correctly re-introduced as are the condors in the same valley? As for the House Rock bison herd I worked that area intensely in the 70's and 80's and would argue that environmental damages in there are from cattle. I never seen bison there overstay an area like cows do. I have done production-utilization surveys in overstocked bison herds in Montana and the most notable characteristic is they have restless legs always trucking on. Im pretty sure that given a reasonable stocking level, we would find the effects of grazing by bison far more acceptable than those by cattle.
times change
marty weiss
marty weiss
Jul 28, 2010 07:54 PM
thanks for your reply.
All too soon life will be at a premium
and people will lose their cavalier attitude about taking life.
I still remember the rabbits that ran in front of my tires,
and all the creatures I've killed and eaten.
life is not to be taken lightly.
Charismatic Megafauna. Yum.
E Anglin
E Anglin
Jul 23, 2010 11:51 AM
Visions of politically incorrect corrections for the cow-bison botanical menaces of the North Rim are now dancing in my head.

Make them stop! Make them stop!

My vote for what to do about the North Rim Bison problem is as follows:

Hold an event, something similar to "Burning Man" where those of us who have made friends with the paleolithic hunter-gatherer genes still roaming through our bodies sending us messages that we need to make and use spears, bows, and arrows - give into those messages and go on a big, fat, semi-naked, well body painted, HUNT.

After the hunt, let's make giant bonfires, play wooden flutes, pound on skin drums, dance semi-naked in the firelight, and EAT.

If we hold this event yearly, I believe we can eventually make that pesky North Rim cow-bison heard extinct.
The mother of invention
Jul 23, 2010 03:23 PM
I totally agree but note that given the economic situation it is more likely to be an event of necessity than of hedonism. Either way, the park service should turn a blind eye and let it happen. Also, if some idiot od's on a substance there's no way they are getting to any sort of reasonable medical care so just cut the crap and let them die and keep the lawyers and the insurance companies out of the way. That is another reason why it would be preferable as an event of necessity rather than hedonism.