The first controlled bison hunt inside Grand Canyon National Park will happen this fall at the North Rim.
A pool of 45,040 applicants from around the country has been whittled down to 12 skilled hunters who will go through more training to participate. The goal of the operation, which is being managed by the National Park Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, is to reduce the size of the bison herd at the North Rim.
A 2017 environmental assessment conducted by the National Park Service noted that the more than 300 bison in the park are damaging vegetation, archaeological sites and water sources. It set a target of reducing the herd to 200 animals.
The park service calls the operation a “lethal removal.” It will take place over four weeks in late September and late October. Here’s how the participants were chosen and how the process will work.
Grand Canyon bison hunt: What to know about the 2021 event
What is a ‘lethal removal’?
Joelle Baird, public affairs specialist for Grand Canyon National Park, explained the reasoning behind the park service’s use of the term “lethal removal” to describe the operation.
“Lethal removing is fundamentally different than hunting,” Baird said. “Some of the biggest differences are during lethal removal, the animals are being destroyed primarily for management purposes. Lethal removal is conducted under very controlled circumstances, under the direction and supervision of an agency which in this case is the National Park Service.
“Lethal removal doesn’t allow the person who killed the animal to escape with the entire animal, whereas hunting does. So we do have some limitations of how much meat each volunteer is going to come away with at the end of this operation.
“So, simply put, lethal removal serves a public purpose. And in our case, with the National Park Service, it’s a wildlife management purpose. While hunting serves both the public and the private sector, it’s more focused on private purposes and private gains versus a greater good, if you will.”
Who applied for the Grand Canyon bison hunt?
Baird said 45,040 applications came from all over the country. The top 10 states from which applications were received are:
- Arizona: 6,719.
- Texas: 5,097.
- Colorado: 3,306.
- Utah: 2,702.
- Washington: 1,215.
- New Mexico: 1,186.
- Michigan: 1,105.
- Idaho: 1,012.
- Nevada: 945.
- Minnesota: 929.
Three of the twelve applicants chosen are from Arizona.
Hunting bison in Arizona is a rare opportunity. Arizona Game and Fish uses a lottery system to issue a limited number of bison tags each year. A tag allows a hunter to pursue bison in a specific area outside Grand Canyon National Park. For the fall 2021 season, 67 tags will be distributed. A hunter is limited to one bison kill in his or her lifetime.
“Bison are revered animals and to hunters that are very familiar with large game in North America, bison is one of the largest land mammals that we have,” Baird said.
“I think there is a lot of appeal and a lot of draw to participate in an operation like this because of the history of bison here in North America. And you don’t find that everywhere in the world. It is uniquely North American and uniquely in the West as well.”
How were the participants chosen?
Arizona Game and Fish was in charge of receiving the 45,040 applications. It randomly selected 25 applicants and provided those names to the National Park Service.
Those 25 individuals underwent a background check. Baird said the background check was necessary because firearms are involved. After the checks were completed, the candidates were interviewed by park service staff, who selected the 12 participants.
“The biggest factor that the park service analyzed and used for the criteria and the interviews is skill and shooting,” Baird said. “These are very large animals and so skill in shooting and proficiency in firearms is pretty key.”
Participants have to be physically fit enough to haul out a bison without a motorized vehicle and versed in backcountry travel techniques.
“Ultimately, also a big consideration is backcountry experience,” Baird said. “The North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is very remote and has very rugged and steep terrain. You have lots of vegetation and brush. So backcountry experience and not just backcountry navigation but orientation is also one of the factors that we looked at.
“The North Rim is 8,000 feet above sea level, so the ability to travel in difficult terrain and being in good physical fitness is really crucial here. The fact that we aren’t having mechanized or motorized vehicles to haul out the animal, they have to be in very good physical shape to help hauling.”
How will the Grand Canyon bison hunt work?
The hunt will take place over four weeks:
- Sept. 20-24.
- Sept 27- Oct 1.
- Oct. 18-22.
- Oct. 25-29.
Three hunters will take part each week. They can bring three to five support staff to help field dress the bison and haul it out of the backcountry.
“We are not expecting volunteers to camp in the field. We do have an administrative campsite set up on the North Rim for the volunteers that is far away from the actual location of where they’ll be in the field. So they’ll be coming back to more or less a home base every evening,” Baird said.
On the first day of each week, all participants will take part in an orientation session. Hunters will go out into the field on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They will be accompanied by three to five national park supervisors who will help locate bison and dictate what animals to shoot.
Baird said female bison will be targeted because they can give birth and are significantly smaller than males, which would make hauling easier. Male bison weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can stand almost 6 feet tall. Female bison typically weigh 800-1,200 pounds and are 4 to 5 feet tall.
Friday will be a wrap-up day. Teams will pack up their camps and provide feedback on how future operations can be improved.
What happens if a hunter gets a bison?
Hunters are limited to one bison.
If a kill is made, the hunter will send the GPS coordinates to their support team, who will come out with additional park service staff to dress the bison and transport it back to camp. No motorized vehicles are allowed — the carcasses must be carried out on foot.
Baird said participants will be advised to bring backpacks that can carry 50-70 pounds and be prepared to spend hours in the dark and cold.
“There is a likelihood that some of these dressing operations might be lasting into the evening hours,” Baird said. “So headlamps, lighting sources…
“The weather in September and October on the North Rim can be well below freezing so we also really emphasize bringing cold weather gear. They have to be self-sufficient with at least five liters of water per person, enough food to sustain them and, of course, navigation tools like GPS, compass, phone maps, binoculars.”
Does the hunter get to keep the bison?
The park service will provide freezers and storage areas for the carcasses.
Arizona Game and Fish will determine what portion of the kill a hunter gets to keep. There is no guarantee that a hunter will receive an entire bison. The amount a hunter takes home could depend on the success of the operation that week, Baird said.
What’s next for the Grand Canyon bison herd?
Several methods are being used to manage the bison population at Grand Canyon.
In addition to hunting, the park service has developed a partnership with the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, which represents 69 tribes in 19 states, to transfer live bison to tribal communities that want them. Since 2019, 88 bison have been transferred to five Native American tribes.
“Our overall goal for 2021 is the removal of 150-200 bison using all reduction methods (live capture, lethal removal and hunting outside park boundaries),” Baird said. Here’s how that goal would be achieved:
- 12 bison taken during the hunt inside the park.
- 65 taken by hunters who receive bison tags from Arizona Game & Fish to hunt outside the park.
- 75-100 relocated to tribal communities through the partnership with the InterTribal Buffalo Council.
“The goal of lethal removal is to make the park less of a refuge for the bison,” Baird said.
But while the park service and Game and Fish have set goals for this experiment and are allowing each hunter to shoot one bison, there are no guarantees.
“Keeping in mind, this is a pilot year,” Baird said. “One is the ideal number but we also have the caveat that volunteers shouldn’t expect a bison. It’s not a guarantee that we’re providing every volunteer to get a bison. There could be numerous factors that could influence the operation and it could be outside of their control.
“You know, just like similar to a hunting tag, there’s never any guarantee.”
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