The NPS - National Parks Service - is trialing a new scheme in the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, after the herd of bison there expanded rapidly in recent years. There are now about 600 bison, a number that is problematic because of various issues including trampling Native American archaeological sites, water contamination, and soil erosion. This number, according to experts, needs to be reduced to around 200 bison in order to preserve the ecosystem.
It feels counter-intuitive to me - bison were nearly extinct in the 19th century after heavy hunting took their numbers down from around 40 to 60 million to just four hundred - but the NPS says that culling some of the large herd is necessary and that the Grand Canyon would never have been the animals' natural stomping ground in the past. Apparently they were introduced artificially to the area by a frontiersman in the 1900s, who wished to breed them with cattle.
What feels extra counter-intuitive to me about the whole exercise is that rather than use park staff, the NPS invited members of the public to apply to shoot bison. They requested applications for "skilled volunteers" - and over 45,000 people applied. This baffles me, I have to say. Who'd apply for the chance to shoot a wild animal? Is it fun? (The activity is specifically forbidden from being called a "hunt" as hunting is forbidden in US national parks, but I'm not sure what the difference between culling and hunting is, other than semantics).
From the 45,000 applicants, 25 "skilled volunteers" will be selected based on skills like marksmanship, and whittled down to a final number of about 12 people, who will then be permitted to stalk and kill bison in the North Rim area of the park. Volunteers are allowed to bring support crew with them but are not allowed to use motorized means to remove the bison meat from the park. (Given that bison can weigh up to 900 kilos, I'm guessing the support crews will need to be fairly large).
So what is it that's encouraged so many people to apply to shoot bison? Is it the chance to eat buffalo steak or make a bison burger? Is it the chance to take part in a historical exercise - the reduction of bison numbers in a famous national park? The scenery? The camaraderie? The fun of it?
I'm baffled. But when I read more about it, it does seem a measured, proportionate response to what is becoming a problem. I think it's the wording of the term "lottery" that makes it sound slightly inappropriate. And yet maybe that's why so many people applied? Maybe by making animal shooting sound like a prize, people began to compete for the chance to do it.
Who knows. But I'm glad they're going to be well vetted before they begin the task. The program itself will begin toward the end of the year, meaning snow could be a factor and it'll be a physically demanding job. I'm not sure I'd enter a lottery for that sort of a prize.