The National Park Service (NPS), with a shameful record of allowing the killing of bison who migrate outside of Yellowstone National Park and onto adjacent federal lands, is now planning on opening up a second front against these great and lumbering beasts, the biggest mammals in North America. This time, the NPS is impassively pursuing plans to kill hundreds of bison within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. If it happens, the NPS will not only be targeting the very symbol of the agency itself and our national mammal (as designated by Congress in 2016), but spilling their blood in or around yet one more jewel of our nation’s most beloved network of federal lands.
In a piece in this weekend’s Arizona Republic, Matthew Scully, onetime senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush, deconstructed the flimsy claims that 400 to 600 bison in the 1.2-million-acre park are too numerous for the land and water resources there. Scully closely examined a little-noticed environmental assessment on the project and found it lacking of any science-based rationale for the plan, yet full of platitudes about prospective bison impacts, with the agency complaining about “soil disturbance” and “erosion potential.” “The bison graze, drink water, and pass through streams, inviting further charges of causing ‘the potential for increasing impacts on vegetation’ and ‘potential concerns about changes to local hydrology’,” reports Scully, himself an Arizona resident and author of the book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.
“On such vague and conjectural grounds,” Scully observes, “we are supposed to accept as unavoidable the miserable death of these beautiful creatures – whose presence at the Canyon, it becomes clear, is utterly benign, causing no harm to anyone who leaves them in peace.”
Scully calls on Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, often a friend to animal welfare, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to scrap the kill plan. The HSUS has offered to assist in the creation of an alternative management plan, under the supervision of the federal agency, for a fertility control program that would put the brakes on further population growth, even if there have been no adverse environmental consequences from the behavior of the park’s small herd of bison. A similar program is underway on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of California, and fertility control there has worked with remarkable efficiency.
The Department of Interior estimates that there were once 30 to 50 million bison roaming North America, but today the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the species as near-threatened, believing there are only about 13,000 free-roaming bison, with the rest existing on private lands. One might expect the NPS, which is supposed to protect rare species from wanton killing, to be among the most ardent defenders of the bison, who are an enormous tourist draw in the northern rim of Grand Canyon. But the NPS has played the opposite role.
A narrow majority of the House Natural Resources Committee wants to take it one step further. These lawmakers, all Republicans, want to turn trophy hunters loose inside the park to kill the animals, even though hunting has been outlawed in the park since its establishment in the early part of the 20th century. In fact, an amendment from Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., to authorize hunting in Grand Canyon has been attached to a truly awful bill, euphemistically called the SHARE Act, which also called for opening National Park Service lands in Alaska to the baiting of grizzlies and the killing of wolves in their dens.
Shooting animals accustomed to a non-threatening human presence — the park attracts nearly six million visitors a year — is a betrayal. The charges against the bison are trumped-up and best characterized as fake ecological news. And the millions of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park – who go to catch a glimpse of this iconic species along with the extraordinary western landscape that the Colorado River has carved with awe-inspiring effect – will be left scratching their heads that the federal agency charged with protecting these animals has turned into their persecutor.
We’re willing to step up to the plate to protect our national mammal, an animal so closely associated with our public lands that the bison is the predominant image on the Department of Interior’s own logo. We just need the federal government’s assent and to stand down on a killing plan with no good reasons behind it.