FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The National Park Service is opening a rare opportunity for skilled shooters to help reduce the number of bison roaming the far reaches of northern Arizona.
Come Monday, potential volunteers will have 48 hours to submit an application to lethally remove the massive animals from Grand Canyon National Park this fall. Thousands of people from across the country are expected to apply. Only 12 will be chosen through a lottery system and notified in mid-May.
“It's a unique experience and you can walk a long ways before you see one, then you gotta get a shot,” said Dave Arnold, a Sun City resident and hunter who harvested a bison in 2002 in South Dakota. “That's where the fun ends. ...It's going to be a lot of work if they get a good-size animal."
The non-physically fit need not apply. Much of the work will be done on foot in elevations of 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) or higher at the Grand Canyon's North Rim. Volunteers can't use motorized transportation or stock animals to retrieve the bison that can weigh up to 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms).
Each volunteer can choose a handful of people to help on the trip and will have to prove firearms proficiency.
Officials at the Grand Canyon say the bison increasingly have been trampling archaeological resources, creating deep ruts and wallows in meadows, and spoiling ponds. They can be hunted on the adjacent national forest, which has pushed them to make their homes almost exclusively within the Grand Canyon.
“They are very skilled climbers, they can get down in places humans can’t,” said Grand Canyon spokeswoman Kaitlyn Thomas. “They are crafty.”
The park service released a plan in September 2017 that called for a mix of corralling the animals near the highway that leads to the North Rim and relocating them, and for skilled volunteers to shoot them both inside and outside the park.
Hunting is prohibited within national parks, but the agency has authority to kill animals that harm resources, using park staff or volunteers.
Other national parks have turned to volunteer shooters to reduce the number of wildlife, including elk at Rocky Mountain National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Olympic National Park in Washington used skilled volunteers last year to lethally remove about three dozen mountain goats. More than 1,200 groups of three to six people applied, and 20 groups were selected with about 100 people total, said park spokeswoman Penny Wagner.
The Grand Canyon has shipped out fewer than 100 bison over the past two years, chipping away at the goal of 200 bison within a few years. Aerial surveys, hampered by the lack of snow, estimate the current population around 300-500 bison.
Talks over the lethal option broke down over the years before current Superintendent Ed Keable revived them. An agreement reached last year between the park and the Arizona Game and Fish Department lets each volunteer keep up to one full bison, including the head and hyde, though not necessarily the one they shot.
The park has outlined four weeks in September and October for three volunteers and a support crew to go out with a park service employee to the Grand Canyon to shoot bison, capped at one per skilled volunteer.
Native American tribes will have a separate opportunity to help with lethal removal, but those agreements are still in the works, Thomas said.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department will draw 25 names from the pool of applicants to forward to the park service for the effort this fall after vetting them for any wildlife violations. Neither department nor park service employees are eligible.
Unlike hunting, the volunteer won't have to pay for a bison tag that can run from $1,100 for an Arizona resident to $5,400 for a non-resident. If they harvest a bison, it also won't count against the one bison per person lifetime limit under the state wildlife office.
“These folks are assisting with two things: they're getting an experience most people will never have and they're assisting with the management of bison,” said Larry Phoenix, a regional supervisor for the department.
Environmental groups have said lethal removal appeases the state wildlife agency and is far less efficient than corralling and relocating the bison. They also contend the sound of gunshots will affect other wildlife that aren’t the targets.
“It’s not the appropriate way to go about this in our eyes,” said Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club.
Volunteers must bring their own equipment, including firearm, and use non-lead ammunition to avoid the risk of poisoning the endangered California condor that scavenges on gut piles. The park service will provide cold storage for the work week.
The lethal removal is considered a pilot project to determine how it might be shaped in the following years. It's expected to put some pressure on the bison to move back to the Kaibab National Forest. The animals are the descendants of bison introduced to northern Arizona in the early 1900s as part of a ranching operation to crossbreed them with cattle and owned by the state.
Arnold, the Sun City resident, said a few people in his sportsmen's group have said they're interested in applying for the volunteer effort. But at 78, he won't be a contender.
“It’s going to be very appealing to some people,” Arnold said. “If I was 20 years younger, I would be right there in line.”
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