Student Newswire of The University of Arizona School of Journalism

Arizona Sonoran News

Arizona Sonoran News

Student Newswire of The University of Arizona School of Journalism

Arizona Sonoran News

    The beast of the canyon

    Photo courtesy of Thomas Sisk/Northern Arizona University.
    Photo courtesy of Thomas Sisk/Northern Arizona University.
    This graphic shows how the Beefalo was cross bred and how their genetics compare today.
    This graphic shows how the Beefalo was cross bred and how their genetics compare today.

    Environmentalists are looking to their point fingers at a certain beast to blame for the destruction happening in the Kaibab Plateau region of the Grand Canyon.

    The culprit- Beefalo.


    These animals are the spawn of a experimental batch of crossbred domestic cattle and bison. And they are being blamed with chewing up the North rim to dust. 

    According to a segment produced by Anne-Marie Bullock for BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth program,there are an estimated 600 beefalo roaming around the North Rim. 

    Their environmental impact weighs heavily on both the land and water around the canyon. The article highlights the creatures ability to consume up to 10 gallons of water each, per trip. Since water is a crucial source for animals and plants, this heavy use could dry out watering holes and risk the livable conditions of the canyon’s surrounding organisms. 

    Another risk Bullock points out is their use of these watering holes as bathrooms as well. The excrement can contaminate the water. Beefalo are also very heavy animals, and their weight compacts the soil they walk on. Thus, leaving footprints of destruction behind. 

    According to Thomas Sisk, a professor of ecology at Northern Arizona University, these beefalo were first introduced to the region in the early 20th century. Sisk has been working on different methods to help reduce the animal’s impact by fencing off certain grazing areas. However, since the animals are so big, they are able to break down these barriers. 

    “The bison definitely crop the native grasses pretty low where the animals are dense, but perhaps more importantly, they have obvious effects near water sources, especially before  the monsoon rains, and this might have some negative consequences on other species that depend on the relatively rare year-round water sources. But we’re just beginning to understand the impacts,” Sisk said. 

    However, there are many people who disagree with classifying the species as a crossbreed, instead arguing that the species is predominately bison.

    “I’d like to be clear that the animals that are located on the North Rim are bison and not beefalo. There is a very distinct difference and the animals in the park are clearly bison,” said Kirby-Lynn Shedlowski, public affairs specialist for Grand Canyon National Park.

    Shedlowski is aware of the segment done by the BBC and said that during the interviews that they were very clear in conveying their disagreement with calling these animals beefalo. 

    Dan B. Faulkner, extension beef specialist at the University of Arizona Animal Sciences Department, agrees with Shedlowski.

    “The animals being discussed are mostly bison with a small amount, if any, domestic cattle crossed.  Their appearance is that of bison,” Faulkner said. 

    Sisk believes the reason for the confusion stems back to when the crossbreed species was first introduced to the area. The early generations of this hybrid had very mixed genetics. However, throughout time, the characteristics from the bison breed have prevailed. Much of this had to do with pure-bred bison being periodically introduced to move the genetics back towards full bison. 

    Regardless of the technicality of classifying these animals, the environmental effects are still apparent.

    “We can see the impact and measure it, but exactly how important it is is debated. Though there is some uncertainty about this, I believe that some concern is warranted, due to their increasing numbers and effects on rare wetland habitats and water sources,” Sisk said. 

    The danger doesn’t come necessarily from the animal itself. The reason the environmental impacts are considered so risky is because of the rapid growth of the herd. According to the BBC segment, the animals are able to multiply so quickly is because the Grand Canyon National Park does not allow hunting. They also do not have any natural predators existing within the region. Faulkner also includes that these animals are unlike cattle because they cannot be managed with fencing or rotational grazing. 

    “The herd appears to be growing rapidly, so what might be a small issue today could be very large in five or 10 years, with a much larger herd. Its also a policy game, with different managers having different opinions about the bison and where they belong, and in what numbers. So, in my opinion, in part this is about ecology, and in part its about policy. And things can get complicated,” Sisk said. 

     Alexis Montano is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at [email protected].

     Click here for  high resolution photos. 

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