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Officials outline lethal removal of bison

By Felicia Fonseca

The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Skilled shooters will get the first opportunity next fall to help reduce the herd of bison roaming the far northern reaches of Grand Canyon National Park.

Don’t call or write asking how to volunteer, officials say. Those details are still being worked out.

An agreement reached between the park and Arizona wildlife officials in late September gives some indication of how lethal removal will play out. It comes three years after the park included it as a management tool, along with corralling and hazing, to remove hundreds of bison from the North Rim.

“If the past is any indicator of the future, there’s going to be a lot of interest,” said Scott Poppenberger, a regional supervisor with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The massive animals that can weigh up to 1,000 pounds are descendants of those introduced to northern Arizona in the early 1900s as part of a ranching operation to crossbreed them with cattle. The state of Arizona now owns them, and hunting tags for the forest adjacent to the Grand Canyon are hugely popular.

The animals now largely spend their time within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park where hunting is prohibited. Left unchecked, officials say they could further destroy vegetation and water resources.

The Grand Canyon has shipped out fewer than 100 of them over the past two years, which has not been enough to get the bison population down to a goal of around 200 within a few years. The park has put collars on some bison to study their migration patterns and get a better estimate of the size of the herd believed to number around 600.

Those picked as potential volunteers for the lethal removal of bison will be vetted by officials from the Grand Canyon and the Game and Fish Department. The volunteers will have to prove firearms proficiency and pass a federal background check.

Once selected, three volunteers will work in a team with a support crew that’s overseen by a National Park Service employee to search out bison over a one-week period. Much of the work would be done on foot in elevations of 8,000 feet or higher between October and May when the road leading to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is closed.

The park service would select the age and sex of the bison targeted. Non-motorized carts, sleds and livestock would be used to transport the bison to the nearest road.

The number of bison allowed to be shot per team would depend on the number of skilled volunteers, each of whom would be able to keep one carcass, though not necessarily the one they shot.

The Grand Canyon and Arizona wildlife officials had been at odds for years over expectations for lethal removal. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission and GOP leaders pushed, at times through federal legislation, for hunters to do the work and to be able to keep their prey, including the hides and heads. The Grand Canyon pushed back, saying that’s not allowed in its regulations.

The arrival of Edward Keable, a former Interior Department assistant solicitor, as Grand Canyon superintendent earlier this year moved the talks forward, officials said.

“This is just one of Ed’s priorities to get buttoned up because it had been languishing for awhile,” said park spokeswoman Kaitlyn Thomas.

Skilled shooters must have their own gear and firearms to participate. Park service employees are prohibited from volunteering. Other details are expected to be released sometime next year.

Both the Grand Canyon and state officials stressed that lethal removal isn’t a hunt. The agreement is in place for five years. Tribes would be given equal opportunity to participate in lethal culling through separate pacts.

Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club would rather see the bison removed entirely from the area and a requirement that volunteers know how to navigate the rugged and remote North Rim.

“I’m very nervous about there being a perpetual dependency on this use of people having to go into the park and shoot,” she said.

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