Grand Canyon National Park Officials to Transport Bison to Native American Lands in Oklahoma, South Dakota

by Alex Falls

The National Park Service organized an effort to relocate 58 Kaibab Plateau bison from the Grand Canyon to tribal-managed herds through the Great Plains.

With the help of federal and state partners, the animals were gathered from the forests and rivers near the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The relocation is an effort to control a herd of bison that might have otherwise damaged park resources. Officials handed off the animals to the InterTribal Buffalo Council for transport to Native American lands in Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The gathered bison originally came from a captive herd near House Rock Valley. But they took up residence in the relatively safe confines of the national park where hunting is prohibited and predators are rare.

The herd first settled into the area just over a decade ago. They stopped migrating back to House Rock Valley during winter. Park officials say bison numbers can grow by 20% each year. The growing population poses a threat of damaging the landscape and disrupting the area’s ecosystem.

“In national parks, while we have amazing, beautiful spaces. [But] we have limited space,” Park Service veterinarian Danielle Buttke said. “What we need to do as wildlife managers is make sure that those populations don’t get so large that there isn’t any food left for the remaining animals. Whether it’s bison or elk or other species.”

Keeping Bison Populations in Control

Studies of the bison herd show some surprising results the National Parks Service is hoping to address. Results suggest the current levels of bison in the park might be improving the grasslands. However, the grasslands influence how many animals Grand Canyon officials decide their range can support.

Their current goal to maintain healthy grassland levels is 200 bison. Before reductions began in 2017, the herd was believed to be twice that number. They also note the potential for the herd to grow to 1,500 bison within a decade if the population is left unchecked.

Bison are coveted animals to tribal herds. Troy Heinert, the Intertribal Buffalo Council’s executive director said more than 20,000 bison are spread among 20 states in the midwest and Great Plains. The animals serve as an essential resource for local tribes.

“Buffalo were an Indigenous food source. And recreating that connection with buffalo takes us back to who we are as Indigenous people,” said Heinert. He himself is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. The federally chartered council includes 79 member tribes and receives funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Bison populations in the Great Plains are managed by the local tribes as wildlife. Some tribes utilize hunted bison to supplement school lunches or elderly or diabetic diet programs. Other tribes simply hunt bison as a means of maintaining a cultural connection to their lands.

Truckers transported the bison from the Grand Canyon to the Iowa and Modoc nations of Oklahoma. Plus the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota.