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Buffalo Jones and bison that don’t belong at the Grand Canyon

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon features dramatic views, but bisonwere introduced there by Buffalo Jones, are not native, and do not belong there. Reducing the number of the cross-bred beasts has proven difficult even with a popular hunting lottery. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

As winter snows cover the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, there’s a herd of animals living there well adapted to the cold, but they do not belong in canyon country. In 1800, as many as 37 million bison roamed the Great Plains. By 1890, fewer than a thousand remained, yet at the start of the 20th century a small herd grazed near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. How the buffalo got there and why they must be culled is the story of wildlife entrepreneur Buffalo Jones.

The wholesale slaughter of bison is one of the great ecological and cultural tragedies of American history. As the railroads moved west, bison were sacrificed for tongues and hides. The U.S. military understood that buffalo were the moving commissary of the Great Plains tribes. Generals ordered that bison hunters could receive free ammunition, thus reducing the Natives’ food supply and forcing Native Americans on to reservations.

Though Buffalo Jones was famous at the turn of the 20 th century and Zane Grey wrote a book about him, by bringing bison to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon Jones created an eco-disaster for the National Park Service. (Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society)

The mass killing of bison included railroad passengers lowering train windows to fire indiscriminately at passing herds, leaving the animals to rot. Buffalo Bill Cody killed hundreds of bison to feed Union Pacific Railroad crews when a ribbon of steel stretched west to bind the nation. The southern herd south of the Arkansas River died out first and then the northern herd was under siege. Charles J. “Buffalo” Jones, born in Illinois, came to Kansas after the Civil War. He hunted bison and wild horses across the plains, but as buffalo numbers dramatically shrank, he sought to establish new herds.

A showman just like Cody, Jones is pictured with a pair of bison pulling a small cart. He lassoed cougars, tried to bring muskox down from the Arctic, and had a variety of fanciful ideas about the role of humans and wildlife. We know some of the facts and tall tales about Buff Jones because of the writer Zane Grey, who accompanied Jones on a cougar hunt near House Rock Valley and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. In his book “The Last of the Plainsmen” (1908), Grey’s purple prose matches the purple sage he made famous. Around numerous campfires Jones regaled local cowboys. One of the cow-punchers called Jones “windy as hell.”

“Jones, erect, rugged, brawny, stood in the full light of the campfire. He had a dark, bronzed, inscrutable face; a stern mouth and square jaw, keen eyes, half-closed from years of searching the wide plains, and deep furrows wrinkling his cheeks,” Grey begins. The writer adds, “A strange stillness enfolded his features – the tranquility earned from a long life of adventure.” In the chapter “The Last Herd,” Grey recounts how Buffalo Jones rode hard after a small herd of bison to lasso and capture young bison calves, sometimes having to shoot and kill enraged buffalo cows who rushed to defend their young.

Wolves appear in a lot of Buffalo Jones’ stories. In this account, he was riding so hard and fast in front of his helpers coming behind him in a wagon that as he lassoed bison calves and left them trussed up on the prairie, he kept taking off pieces of his clothing to leave with the calves so that his scent would discourage wolf predation. “Secure in the double knots, the calf lay still, sticking out his tongue and rolling his eyes, with the coat of the hunter tucked under his bonds to keep away the wolves,” Grey wrote. At the end of a long day, Jones had captured eight bison calves and had forfeited his hat, boots and most of his clothes. He drove a small bison herd from Utah into northern Arizona to Bright Angel Point on the North Rim.

The great conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt helped to save America’s bison from extinction, but he could not have conceived of the problems caused by bison on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress designated the Grand Canyon Game Preserve, selecting 600,000 acres out of the Kaibab National Forest. Had Buffalo Jones left his bison genetically pure he would have made a solid contribution to conservation, but ever the entrepreneur, he crossbred buffalo with Galloway cattle, creating an odd animal that now causes headaches for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the National Park Service.

Bison never roamed the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. By herding them there, Buffalo Jones had inadvertently put the wrong animal in the wrong place. Within two years his crossbreeding experiment failed. According to the Kansas Historical Society, Grey’s book “immortalized” C.J. Jones, but the ecological headaches evolving from his buffalo ranch were only beginning. The lion-hunter Jimmy Owens found 98 of the bison and in 1927 sold them to the state of Arizona. Just as on the plains, bison move where and when they want to. The Grand Canyon Game Preserve is now Grand Canyon National Park, and Buffalo Jones’ bison are tearing up habitat that rightfully belongs to deer and elk. Local ranchers aren’t pleased, either, and hunters complain that bison hunting regulations shift and change.

The House Rock Valley herd is now subject to pressures and rules that Buffalo Jones could hardly imagine such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Environmental Impact Statements. Seventy-five original animals have become over 200 head damaging landscapes, crowding water holes, tearing up meadows and archaeological sites, and ignoring fences. Bison characteristics that evolved over millennia across the broad sweep of the Great Plains do not work in a high-altitude alpine habitat with steep, descending cliffs.

“More than a century after Buffalo Jones’ experiment with cattle and bison created some odd-looking animals that eventually found their way onto the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, the park staff is working to reduce the number in the herd,” reports National Parks Traveler. Combining cattle and bison genes dilute the bison gene pool, yet tribal members of the InterTribal Buffalo Council want live samples from northern Arizona to add to their herds. In contrast to saving the bison, hunters hope to pull the trigger on an iconic Western animal.

In May 2021, The New York Times reported that 45,000 people had applied for 12 permits to cull the cross-bred bison. Selected hunters had to pass shooting tests, safety training and walk 30 miles. But despite all the hoopla and mounting public criticism, only four of the animals were harvested and field dressed. “We were following bison and trying to find bison and disturbing bison by the mere fact of trying to remove them,” lamented Grand Canyon wildlife biologist Greg Holm in an Associated Press story written by Felicia Fonseca. In the past three years, 124 bison have been relocated. The goal is to reduce buffalo numbers to only 200. As of January 2022, the Kaibab Plateau herd is now considered to be 216 animals, much lower than earlier estimates of 600 to 800 animals.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon features dramatic views, but bisonwere introduced there by Buffalo Jones, are not native, and do not belong there. Reducing the number of the cross-bred beasts has proven difficult even with a popular hunting lottery. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

In the 21st century, we try to leave wildlife alone, to secure their habitats and to only minimally intervene. Even with culling bison and giving away others to Native tribes, Buffalo Jones’ legacy will continue to create problems for one of our majestic national parks.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.