Land Trust Offers Colorado Home for Grand Canyon Bison in Danger of "Lethal Removal"

Denver has its own bison herd at Genesee Mountain Park.
Denver has its own bison herd at Genesee Mountain Park. Brandon Marshall
On September 20, three hunters embarked on a journey that had been unimaginable for generations: hunting bison in the Grand Canyon. Months earlier, a Colorado organization had tried to prevent the hunt from happening — and its offer still stands.

The National Park Service will allow up to twelve people to hunt buffalo in the national park, which does not usually allow hunting, as part of its efforts to curb the rapid growth of the bison population there by
"lethal removal"; the NPS wants to reduce the herd to about 250 from 600. The NPS cites “impacts from grazing and trampling on water, vegetation, soils, and archaeological sites, as well as on visitor experience and wilderness character" as reasons for the action.

But the Southern Plains Land Trust would rather take the excess animals alive, and relocate them to its Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve in southeast Colorado.

Hunters are generally limited to killing one bison in their lifetime, and must be approved for a bison tag in order to hunt the animal. Over 45,000 people volunteered for the opportunity to hunt in Grand Canyon National Park; the Arizona Game and Fish Department selected 25 applicants through a lottery in May. The NPS then chose the final twelve based on their backcountry expertise and shooting skill. Groups of three will be sent out each week; they are required to bring their own gear and will be allowed to each kill only one animal.

That's one animal too many, according to advocates like Nicole Rosmarino, executive director of the Southern Plains Land Trust, and Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, a Washington, D.C.-based policy group focused on eliminating animal cruelty.

If it were up to Animal Wellness Action, the NPS wouldn’t be attempting to control the bison population at all. “The National Park Service is supposed to let nature play out,” Pacelle says. “They're not supposed to be these hyper-aggressive wildlife managers.” The number of bison in the Grand Canyon isn’t excessive, he adds, especially considering that bison are a native species whose numbers are only small because of excessive hunting by humans.

Pacelle questions how such a small number of bison could be ruining the Grand Canyon environment when there were up to 16 million bison roaming the land at one point in time. “Nature is not just scenery. Nature is lived in environments and animals,” he declares. “So I think it's a strange position for the park service to have adopted. There's no rationale for it at all.”

He and Rosmarino wonder why the NPS managed to transfer nearly ninety bison to Native American tribes but chose to have some killed rather than moved.

If the NPS wants to control the population in place, Pacelle suggests using contraceptive vaccines available for bison instead. On its website, however, the National Park Service says fertility control will not fix the immediate problem in a timely manner.

But the Southern Plains Land Trust proposed immediate action, volunteering to take the dozen bison in danger of being killed. In Rosmarino’s proposal, delivered to the NPS in June, she described Heartland's 25,000 acres of land and the two herds of bison already helping to maintain the grasslands on the preserve established in 2015.

The Southern Plains Land Trust hopes to add nearly 20,000 acres to the preserve in the future; its goal is to bring back the American Serengeti, which saw elk, black-footed ferrets and other native prairie species thrive alongside bison. “I mean, they are the U.S. national mammal. They deserve kindness and sanctuary, not to be targets for hunters,” Rosmarino says.

She has not heard from the NPS regarding her offer to take in the bison.

Governor Jared Polis has weighed in, though, and urged the National Park Service to work with the Southern Plains Land Trust. “It is rare for the lethal removal of Bison to be allowed on National Park Service land, which is owned by all Americans," he said in a September 21 announcement. "This decision should be reversed, and we would welcome these twelve bison to live and roam free at the Southern Plains Land Trust in Bent County.”

Neither the NPS nor Arizona Game and Fish have responded to a request for comment.
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Catie Cheshire is Westword's editorial fellow. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire