Opinion | Let the Bison Be

PHOENIX — In politics, issues of true importance aren’t always the ones that consume our attention. My candidate for the most underrated of all public concerns is the treatment of animals, an issue as revealing as any about our character and sense of fairness. If you want hard evidence to track the moral progress of humanity, watch how we deal with other creatures who are defenseless against our power and will.

A case in point: The National Park Service is about to allow 12 hunters into the supposed sanctuary of Grand Canyon National Park. The hunters, selected by lottery from more than 45,000 applicants, will be allowed to kill one bison each, in what one hunting website described as a “once in a lifetime” experience.

This “pilot lethal removal program,” set to begin on Monday, apparently is the Park Service’s idea of rational, sober-minded conservation. Outside the world of blood sport and the game-management bureaucracy, it should rightly strike most people as an appalling betrayal of trust in a national park where hunting is prohibited.

So the fate of 12 bison in the coming weeks, and possibly more if this “pilot” program turns into a regular affair, has implications beyond the reach of the Colorado River. What will follow from this — at Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance, or Yellowstone or elsewhere?

The bison live on the canyon’s North Rim. As in Yellowstone, the herd has long presented visitors with a happy, peaceable, uplifting scene.

Given the somber history of the species — what Theodore Roosevelt called the “merciless and terrible” annihilation of the American bison — why would anyone begrudge this herd a safe stretch of earth?

There was a day when as many as 60 million bison ranged from the Yukon all the way to Mexico, including in Northern Arizona. Here is a humble herd of some three or four hundred bison left to enjoy refuge in a 1.2-million-acre park. We can’t just let them be? The targeted bison don’t belong in a national park but hunters do?

Where they fail to inspire compassion, animals inspire in certain people a flair for elaborate rationalization. Here the pretext for “bison reduction actions,” in the euphemistic parlance of the scheme, is laid out in a 2017 Initial Bison Herd Reduction Environmental Assessment. The document is a case study in ecological hyper management, filled with so much fretting about the natural impacts of bison and the potential for herd expansion that you’re left wondering how the American landscape ever survived tens of millions of them.

For such intolerable offenses as foraging, drinking, defecating, wallowing and kicking up some dirt, these native animals are treated throughout the study as a constant disturbance, as if the ideal of management were sterile, picture-perfect scenery instead of a lived-in ecosystem.

To make the bison look bad takes some work-intensive phrasing. If one is straining to give a bison hunt a scientific-sounding rationale, the creatures’ natural behaviors raise alarm over “the potential for increasing impacts” on park resources, “erosion potential,” “soil disturbance,” “potential concerns about changes to local hydrology,” “potential damage” to archaeological sites, and on and on.

Are any of these dreadful developments really so bad as to warrant a bison cull? No. And if the concern is controlling the bison population in the park, there are other ways to do that than killing them.

Yet in the herd-reduction assessment, relocation of the entire herd, fertility control and other nonlethal alternatives are dismissed as impractical or not considered, even though some bison in the recent past were captured and relocated anyway, in coordination with Native American tribes, leaving one to wonder: Why couldn’t all of them be moved to a place where they wouldn’t be harassed or shot at? Or why not control the herd with the contraceptive vaccine PZP, administered by marksmen directing darts at the females, which has contained bison elsewhere?

A more hysterical version of the Park Service’s trumped-up case comes from the Arizona congressman Paul Gosar, a legislative hand in all of this. Disturbed that bison were “wreaking havoc,” causing “devastation,” threatening no less than “the wonder that is the Grand Canyon,” Mr. Gosar called on the government to “empower” hunters — and they were, in a 2019 law that allows the interior secretary to use “qualified volunteers” to “reduce the size of a wildlife population” within a national park.

Hunters already are empowered under a corresponding program of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which not only authorizes killing in areas close to the park, but also offers coaching in technique. In recent years, hundreds of bison near the park have been killed by hunters. The spirit of the program can be seen in a “bison hunter packet” the state furnishes to participants. The trick, the packet explains, is to lie in wait by water holes and shoot them when they’re thirsty and make sure they don’t “retreat to safety” in Grand Canyon National Park.

This tawdry business explains why the bison have been congregating in the park for longer periods, adding to those impacts that trouble the Park Service. The creatures are smart enough to realize that leaving the park means danger. Wildlife management in this case might be trying to solve problems of its own making. And to make credible the Park Service’s own argument that this is not a “hunt” but merely a supervised “lethal removal,” the last thing it should have done is solicit applications from “skilled volunteers” who no doubt included trophy hunters.

An agency whose very logo features a bison, in keeping with its protective mission, should have found another way. The National Park Service is overseen by the Department of the Interior, and we can hope that Secretary Deb Haaland (who, as she reported on Twitter, recently delighted in the sight of free-roaming bison) will see the cold and contrived design of the plan, and call off the hunt. It represents the worst elements of Interior Department policy in the four years before she arrived.

Who better, indeed, than our first Native American interior secretary to extend leniency to these animals, in recognition of their travails in all the rank abuses of the 19th century? Fairness, honor, and charity all counsel her to set the Park Service straight and to spare the bison from further grief. At the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, these creatures are a welcome presence and a sight to admire, living reminders that America has put the days of “merciless and terrible” annihilation firmly in our past.

Matthew Scully, who was a senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is the author of “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.”

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