“Now that we’ve proven this herd is part cattle, that settles the issue for us,” said Lesley. “It doesn’t matter if this herd is exotic or native as far as bison go, these are not genetically pure bison. We would only manage genetically pure species such as those in Yellowstone National Park.”
Even then, she said, that would depend on whether buffalo were here in the first place.
“National Park Service systems are set aside to preserve native wildlife as one of their mandates,” said Lesley. “We don’t want to manage an ecosystem for an exotic species.”
The Park Service is working with Dr. Jim Mead, of Northern Arizona University, to determine the historical presence of bison in the region.
She said that while there’s evidence that a prehistoric species may have been here during the Pleistocene era, along with sabertooth tigers, elephants and camels, there’s no evidence yet that proves or disproves that modern-day bison populated the area.
Because the buffalo came here on their own, their introduction onto park land bypassed requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to study and solicit public comment to assess potential impact on habitat and other species.
“Our concern is that there hasn’t been any NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) action before they were introduced here as free-ranging animals,” she said. “We have to discuss preferred alternatives and options that the public can weigh in on as to how public lands are managed.”
Now that they are here, the NEPA process will be followed to provide for their removal.
Buffalo hunts to manage the House Rock herds are held periodically by special permit, but Lesley said the park service has no intention of taking such steps to eliminate these animals from park land.
“We’re not out to lethally remove wildlife,” she said.
“We’ll follow the NEPA process for a clear direction of where to head,” said Lesley. “Park management will come up with a series of alternatives, we’ll get public input and we’ll move forward. It may include working with a partner like the Intertribal Bison Council or with the state to get them out and keep them out.”
There are concerns about the effects the bison will have on the fragile canyon environment. As North America’s largest livestock species, with adult males weighing in at between 1,400 to 2,500 pounds, buffalo eat about 35 pounds of vegetation per day, according to information on the Arizona Game and Fish Commission’s Web site.
“Bison are not native here historically,” said Lesley. “The soils and plants didn’t evolve with an animal of this type.”
She said trampling damage has been documented on the North Rim, in critical habitat for some endangered and threatened species. The park started working with the Grand Canyon Trust last summer to study and document the effects the buffalo are having on the habitat.
“We’ve started monitoring vegetation types along ponds and springs and started a quantitative analysis,” she said.
She said work must also be done with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to make sure that once they’re removed, they stay where they belong.
“This has been in the last 10 years that we’ve seen significant numbers within the park,” she said. “We don’t know if it’s a change in management strategy – whether they’ve stopped maintaining fences or supplemental feeding that keeps them in House Valley. It could be that in conjunction with the drought and are looking for better forage, the best places are most protected spaces and that would be in national parks.”
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