Last month, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted to enter into an agreement with the Grand Canyon National Park for active management of bison present in the park. This agreement has been more than 23 years in the making. In 1997, the Arizona Game and Fish Department recommended a menu of options to prevent Arizona’s bison herd from concentrating within the boundaries of the park amid public and National Park Service concerns that too many bison would damage sensitive ecosystems and historic antiquities. Sadly, the timing wasn’t right, and nothing was done at that time.
Five years ago, as then-chairman of the commission, I wrote in support of the Grand Canyon Bison Management Act, a bill that would have seen the U.S. Department of Interior and the commission coordinate on a plan for skilled volunteers with valid state-issued hunting licenses to assist in the management of the then-estimated 600 bison within the park through lethal removal, as well as nonlethal means. The bill did not pass because lawmakers hoped that federal and state agencies could come to an agreement instead.
What seemed like a common-sense solution, allowing volunteers to remove bison, was considered less favorable than hiring sharpshooters at taxpayer expense as part of a plan that called for bison to be lethally removed and left to “recycle into the environment.”
The outlook was bleak. A year after sending that letter, I relinquished chairmanship of the Game and Fish Commission and approached the last year of my first appointment. Negotiations with the National Park Service had stalled. Department of the Interior leadership agreed with the commission, but it seemed as if the effort was doomed by the sheer weight of bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.
Fortunately, committed individuals were willing to see this through for the benefit of the park’s resources and the bison herd. Both department staff and Department of Interior leadership remained dedicated, despite seemingly insurmountable barriers. It is now a great joy to see an agreement come to fruition in my second time serving as chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.
This multi-faceted, science-driven agreement includes hazing and lethal removal, alongside live translocations, in a concerted effort to disrupt the “refuge effect” that led to bison concentrating in the park as they fled pressure on public lands outside the park boundaries. Instead of nearly 700 of these enormous ungulates concentrated in an unsustainable space inside the park, the agreed target of approximately 200 bison ranging inside the National Park, along with the current sustainable population ranging across the Kaibab plateau, will be managed through this agreement. This will ultimately protect the entire plateau ecosystem, as well as the park’s resources and antiquities.
Public skilled volunteers will be able to harvest a single bison with the head, hide and meat entrusted to the department, then transferred in exchange for the removal. Bottom line, there will be no waste of game meat and no waste of tax dollars. I want to express my appreciation to the current leadership of the Park Service for finding an ethical approach.
I also applaud everyone from Game and Fish Department staff, who have worked ceaselessly on this issue, to Secretary Bernhardt and Superintendent Keable. Your efforts will ultimately bring back the appropriate balance that is necessary to ensure the success of the bison herd and the Grand Canyon’s resources for generations to come, by using science and skilled volunteers.
Kurt R. Davis is chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.