Why monitor the bison?
The Kaibab Plateau bison herd, that migrated onto the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park from House Rock Valley, has adapted to various habitats; grazing and wallowing in park meadows, stampeding through dense forests, wintering along the rim of the canyon, and occasionally venturing below the Kaibab limestone in the canyon. Concerns of ecological impacts and effects to archeological sites have increased over the years as these bison have begun to congregate around natural water sources and change their migration behaviors to stay within park boundaries for longer periods throughout the year. Park researchers and collaborators have been monitoring the impacts of this herd on the natural and cultural resources of the North Rim and are establishing a feasible reduction plan.
What do the studies show?
Population Size and Migration:
Aerial surveys with collaborating agencies have shown that this herd is steadily increasing and is currently estimated at a size of 400-600 animals, which has the potential to grow to an estimated 1,200-1,500 individuals within the next 10 years. GPS tracking of individual bison shows that the herd has not returned to House Rock Valley since 2009, staying almost entirely within park boundaries. In 2017 Arizona introduced a new herd of bison to House Rock Valley. To separate these two distinct and physically separated herds the herd that resides primarily in Grand Canyon National park is now referred to as the Kaibab Plateau bison herd.
Camera traps deployed at North Rim water sources have documented the physical disturbance of natural resources and have been utilized to map out bison density on the North Rim to better understand interactions with other wildlife species. Determent of bison by fencing around favored water sources has proven unsuccessful.
Impacts on Vegetation:
Vegetation research conducted around the water sources on the North Rim shows that as bison activity increases, soil disruption also increases. Soil disruption is not only a catalyst for the introduction of exotic species, but it has hindered the growth in height, abundance, and diversity of native plant species.
Effected Water Quality:
The drinking water in Grand Canyon National Park comes from Roaring Springs, fed by rain and snowmelt on the North Rim. Monitoring has indicated increased levels of E. coli bacteria in standing water associated with bison grazing areas. Large ungulate herds are known to cause significant damage to water sources through contamination and soil compaction. Park experts suggest that the ongoing damage inpacts to water quality by Kaibab Plateau bison herd may be far worse than current research shows.
Threats to Archeological Sites:
Park archeologists have found significant threats to culturally rich areas of the North Rim from the ongoing impacts of the Kaibab Plateau bison herd. Research shows that these bison follow migratory patterns in search of water and resources. In doing so, the herds trample through archeological sites causing damage to artifacts and cultural features found on the surface and buried underground. This is apparent in the wallows and bison trails surrounding and within survey sites.
Prepared by Desiree Espericueta, Wildlife Technician, Grand Canyon National Park (February 2018).