When we hiked out of the canyon yesterday and onto the Kaibab Plateau, we entered an entire new ecosystem. But this ecosystem feels worn around the edges, kind of like my socks after several hundred miles on this hike. Today we walk through tall Ponderosa Pines but it is very dry, especially for this time of year when there still should be snow and wetness above 8,000 feet.
Our plan is hike the roads on the Kaibab Plateau to our cache of food and water which is about 14 miles from us just outside the Park boundary. We will load up on water and food there and hike to Swamp Point which is where the North Bass trail starts. The North Bass Trail goes south into Muav Canyon and we will go north into Saddle Canyon. Our plan is to get to Swamp Point tonight which is about 8 miles past our cache of food and water.
We start early as usual and we have gloves, hats and ultralight down jackets on. The roads are closed for the winter up here and it feels very remote and quiet. That is, until we hear the thunder of hooves and look up to see two beefaloes running off into the woods.
The short story is that the current herd are descendants from a failed experiment in the early 1900s from Charles “Buffalo” Jones who crossbred a herd of bison with cattle north of Grand Canyon National Park in House Rock Valley. For many years the House Rock bison herd was managed by the Arizona Fish and Game Department through roundups and controlled hunting. In 1972, the Arizona Fish and Game Department succumbed to public pressure to stop “corral shoots” in which the animals were corralled and shot by permit holders. For a while, the Arizona Fish and Game Department guided the hunters but by the mid-1990s the hunters were on their own. The Arizona Fish and Game Department lost sight of controlling the herd as people with knowledge retired and budgets grew tighter. Fences fell into disrepair and the House Rock bison became a free-ranging herd.
In the last 20 years this herd of bison in the Grand Canyon increased exponentially from one confirmed siting in 1996 to a current estimated population of 400 to 600 individuals. For a number of years, the House Rock bison herd migrated between House Rock Valley and Grand Canyon National Park. But that has changed. Since 2009, the herd has stayed in the Park probably because of ongoing bison hunts on U.S. Forest Service land outside the boundary.
The issue that has pitted Environmentalists against the Park Service and Fish and Game has to do with whether they are native to the area, whether they should be removed entirely from the Park, should they be removed and be relocated or should they be culled (in other words shot), what should be done with the carcasses, and how and who should be able to cull or relocate them. The issue also boils down to whether hunting should be allowed in a National Park and whether this would set a precedent. Everyone agrees that the herd has gotten too large and is heavily impacting natural and cultural resources.
I’m not sure what the answer is but I feel the urgency to do something about the size of this herd NOW. Ray and I see huge impacts from their presence here. We hiked the North Bass Trail 15 years ago and I do not remember seeing any sign of them on these roads or at the start of our hike at North Bass. But now, every meadow we go through is overgrazed, every road has become a stampeded highway and every water hole is a trampled mud hole.
I read that one bison can drink 10 gallons at one time and am not surprised to see every water hole dry and trampled with bison hooves. I can feel their desperation as it is a dry year but I can also see that it has driven other animals away.
Probably the biggest critical issue is Roaring Springs which is on the North Kaibab Trail and is the drinking water for the Grand Canyon National Park. Roaring Springs is fed by rain and snow melt which around these water holes is showing increasing levels of E. Coli. As a hydrogeologist, I know that Roaring Springs is part of a karst system, and has a direct connection to snow melt and runoff through fractures and caves. It is not filtered slowly through sand like many other aquifers. The impacts to water quality could be huge.
Ray and I reach our food and water cache and restock our packs.
We are now carrying 8 liters of water each and I feel weighted down now. We reach Swamp Point around 5pm and set up a great camp on the rim of the canyon. I close my eyes and try not to think about beefaloes.