Managing buffalo to heal a nation, save an ecosystem

Posted 10/20/20

Before the siren of Manifest Destiny sounded from sea to shining sea, as many as 60 million bison were estimated to roam North America.

By the mid-1800s, the United States was steeped in the …

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Managing buffalo to heal a nation, save an ecosystem


Before the siren of Manifest Destiny sounded from sea to shining sea, as many as 60 million bison were estimated to roam North America.

By the mid-1800s, the United States was steeped in the philosophy that the country was ordained by god to expand democracy across the continent, and frontiersmen had begun systematically exterminating the native animal.

Although there was no official policy on the destruction of bison, the sentiment of one U.S. Army colonel in 1867 was not uncommon: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

And thus, the story of the buffalo became the story of the Native American.

The history of the American bison has seen hills and valleys, with the species reaching near extinction around the turn of the 20th century to a conservation effort that has helped grow the population.

But now the species is experiencing a new chapter in its existence.

Along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, biologists estimate the House Rock Bison herd could grow to nearly 800 in the next three years, and as high as 1,500 within the next 10 years, without further management actions to control its size.

Already biologists say the overpopulation has severely degraded grassland areas and the overall Grand Canyon ecosystem.
Because of this, jointly managed federal and state herd reduction has begun.

Moving the process forward, Arizona Game and Fish Commission and the National Park Service entered into an agreement, Sept. 25, to reduce the number of bison on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

Reducing the herd to 200

In Arizona, bison roam the Kaibab Plateau but spend most of their time on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
Most recent National Parks estimates put the herd at 400 to 600 bison.

Kait Thomas, public affairs officer at Grand Canyon National Park, said reducing this herd’s size to under 200 bison will protect the ecosystem, park resources and values.

Given the current distribution, abundance, density and the expected growth of this herd, the National Park System is concerned about increased impacts on park resources such as water, vegetation, soils, archaeological sites and values such as visitor experience and wilderness character.

Ms. Thomas said a sharp contrast is visible on actively managed Kaibab National Forest lands immediately adjacent to the Grand Canyon. Bison have reduced grass cover in the park, particularly grasses near pools of water, and have impacted soils by creating wallows and trails, she said.

“They have made seeps and springs muddy and devoid of vegetation and have potentially damaged the karst functioning, which is the natural plumbing for the entire water system in the canyon region. They have trampled and knocked over archaeological sites,” she said. “All impacts would be exacerbated the larger the herd is allowed to grow.”

Tools for removal

In a concerted effort to disrupt the bison growth, the agreement between Game and Fish and National Parks includes a number of tools for herd reduction including live capture and translocations, hazing and lethal removal by skilled volunteers, or hunters.

Anne Ackroyd, public affairs and media relations branch chief at Arizona Game and Fish, said live capture and translocations were the first of these three tools to be used at the Grand Canyon.

The park has successfully conducted two live bison transfers to the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a group that restores buffalo to Indian country.

The new agreement allows for hazing and lethal removal of bison.

Lethal removal, or hunting, once implemented, should help the bison become less comfortable on park lands and move more widely on the Kaibab Plateau.

“Hunting is illegal in Grand Canyon National Park, however volunteer skilled shooters will work under the direction of the National Park Service to assist with the management action of lethally removing bison,” Ms. Ackroyd said.

Hazing, while not yet implemented, is a tool that can be used to augment these other operations, under the new agreement.

Buffalo Council

Grand Canyon National Park biologists working with Game and Fish staff began piloting live capture and removal in 2019. In the program’s two seasons, 88 bison have been captured and relocated to five American Indian tribes through an agreement with the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council. These animals will augment existing herds managed by tribes throughout the country.

The council is a collection of 69 federally recognized tribes from 19 different states whose mission is to restore buffalo to Indian country in order to preserve their historical, cultural, traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations.

Executive Director Arnell Abold said reestablishing healthy buffalo populations on tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people, as well as help to heal the land, the animal and the spirit of the Indian people.

Ms. Abold said the systematic killing of buffalo during the 1800s left native Americans with a loss of culture, connection and people.

“The reality of the killing off of buffalo in the 1800s had a traumatic impact on our people in which our food, clothing, shelter and way of life were completely removed,” she said.

The relocation of bison from the north rim is a path toward healing and a reconnection to the native culture and ancestry, Ms. Abold said.

“The buffalo is significant to each different tribe in its own way. Each tribe has its own story. The buffalo provided many things for our people. They were essential for our food, clothing and shelter. There is a relationship with the buffalo, and it’s not the same in every tribe, but there is a healing in the connection with the buffalo,” Ms. Abold said.

“The genocide of the buffalo is also the genocide of our people. Bringing them back is a connection to our culture. This is what our ancestors had to do and this is what we carry forward. It has been quite beautiful to witness the different tribes and how they view the buffalo,” she said.

The Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council has restored more than 20,000 buffalo to tribes throughout the country. promoting cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration and economic development.

Bringing buffalo into tribes can take shape in various ways, ranging from ceremonial uses to prairie restoration.

For example, the council has facilitated the use of buffalo in 12 reservation school lunch programs.

American Indian adults are almost three times more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Buffalo meat is low in fat and cholesterol and is compatible to the genetics of the Indian people.

Ms. Abold said Buffalo as a food source was inherently the Native American way, life and diet, and its removal was detrimental to the native diet.

“Thus far the program with National Forest and Game and Fish has been very successful. It is an exciting program for all parties involved,” Ms. Abold said. “We are always excited to receive buffalo and connect them to their future home.”

Past to present

By the end of the 19th century, laws were being passed to protect bison with varying levels of success, but the plight of the animal was becoming more evident.

The House Rock herd at the Grand Canyon has its origin in 1905, when rancher Charles “Buffalo” Jones brought bison to House Rock Valley north of the Grand Canyon in a failed attempt to cross-breed them with Galloway heifers.

Notorious as a conman and profiteer, Mr. Jones in the late 1800s was a bison hunter, but as buffalo began to disappear from the plains, he began to see the hunts as wicked and senseless slaughter, which compelled him to take measures to preserve the species, according to the National Buffalo Foundation.

This decision was made in part because of his friendship with Jimmy Owens, a warden at the Grand Canyon, and President Theodore Roosevelt, who had become enamored by the buffalo, later becoming known as the conservation president, establishing 150 national forests, four national game preserves and five national parks during his presidency.

Ms. Ackroyd said President Roosevelt thought the area was an excellent location for a game preserve.

“Bison conservation continent-wide was a success due to the efforts of these men. Without them, the bison may have gone extinct.” Ms. Ackroyd said.

“While there is not yet any archaeologic or paleontological evidence of bison within the boundaries of modern-day Grand Canyon National Park, Northern Arizona may have been on the southwest edge of the historic bison range. Arizona Game and Fish Department considers the House Rock population a successful bison reintroduction because northern Arizona is considered to be within this historic range.”

Arizona recognizes and designates bison within the state as wildlife under state law. Bison were recognized as the official U.S. mammal in 2016, and National Bison Day is recognized annually on the first Saturday of November.

Megan Davenport, Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council wildlife biologist, said every buffalo on the landscape is important — whether in tribal or commercial herds as well as those managed for conservation purposes.

For now, Ms. Davenport said she is incredibly optimistic that if others follow the lead of many tribal nations in restoring buffalo to their lands and communities, everyone will benefit.

“It is hard for many U.S. citizens today to imagine the true return of the buffalo in numbers anywhere near what their historic levels are, because it’s been 200 years since their numbers were that high,” she said.

“I definitely dream of a day where buffalo could be wandering through my backyard just like deer do, and also could be fully integrated into the lives of all people as they once were.”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697,, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.