WASHINGTON -- A planned hunt of bison on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon this week appears to be moving forward, despite last-minute pleas by lawmakers in Colorado to move the animals there instead.
The hunt, which has been in the works for months, is just one way the National Park Service hopes to reduce the size of the herd, from about 600 bison now to 200 by 2025, a number that wildlife officials say could live in the park without causing environmental damage.
More than 45,000 people applied to be one of the 12 sharpshooters who will be selected for the hunt, a pilot program that will mark the first time hunting is allowed within the confines of the park.
Environmentalists agree that there are too many bison for the health of the park, but they question the value of killing just 12. Instead, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said that the animals should be moved to his state, where they can “live and roam free at the Southern Plains Land Trust in Bent County.”
“I urge Interior and the National Park Service to consider this practical Colorado situation,” Polis said in a statement Tuesday.
His statement followed a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last week from Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and four other House members urging the department to consider “non-lethal methods to manage the bison population, such as the use of live capture, a fertility control vaccine, etc.”
Calls to federal and state officials overseeing the hunt were not returned Wednesday. But in previous documents on the herd management plan, the National Park Service rejected bison birth control, citing the need to quickly reduce the size of the herd.
“Fertility control can take a long time and requires expensive, frequently repeated applications to achieve significant population reductions,” said the service, adding that other methods, including “lethal removal” will get the herd to the desired size in the next few years.
But critics of the lethal removal plan, who said Wednesday that they had gotten no indications that the hunt was being delayed, said the pilot program is not only wrong, but the wrong way for the park service to achieve its goal.
“The idea that killing 12 of them (bison) is going to get you close to bringing it down to 200 is ridiculous,” said Joe Trudeau, a Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. He said the center “absolutely supports the request of Gov. Polis – it’s humane, it’s logical and it’s realistic.”
The hunt is part of an agreement reached last year between the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the National Park Service, to reduce the bison herd on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Without management, officials estimate that the herd could grow from about 600 animals today to as many as 1,500 in 10 years.
In addition to lethal removal, the plan calls for hazing bison in the park and for live capture of bison that can then be transferred to Native American tribes to manage. As of this month, a total of 124 bison had been removed from the park over the last two years and transferred to six tribes, in four states, that are part of the InterTribal Buffalo Council.
But the hunt has drawn the most attention. From the more than 45,000 applications received, the Arizona Game and Fish was to select a final 12 “skilled volunteers” for the lethal removal of 12 bison.
Applicants had to pass a shooting test, putting three of five bullets in a 4-inch target from 100 yards. They also had to have a support team, be willing to field-dress and haul out their kill, provide their own camping and hunting gear, and complete a number of safety and training programs, among other requirements.
Selected hunters will be allowed to “take up to a single bison including head, hide and meat in exchange for removing the carcass from Grand Canyon National Park,” according to Game and Fish documents.
Trudeau acknowledges that the herd in the park, protected from hunting, has been “growing dramatically with significant environmental impact … on some fairly sensitive environments.” But he worries that this first hunt, billed as a pilot project, will be ramped up in the future, and the hunt will be expanded.
“It would be the first-time hunting has been allowed within the national park,” he said. “There is bison hunting on the neighboring national forests, but to allow it to happen in the park is really uncharted territory that is a really bad precedent for how we’re managing our national parks.”
The City of Flagstaff is seeking public feedback on an upcoming plan to improve walking and biking infrastructure in the city, and have released a draft for public review.
The Active Transportation Master Plan (ATMP) will serve as a detailed guide to enhance multimodal transportation in Flagstaff as the city shifts its focus from single-commuter vehicles, according to city officials.
To meet that goal, officials have drafted the ATMP to include prioritized projects, actions, programs and strategies -- including the goal of establishing a fully functional biking network in the city.
“Over the years there have been a number of city plans that indicate in a general sense a support for walking and biking, starting with Flagstaff’s Region Plan. All of those plans are fairly general in nature and lack some detail in accommodation for pedestrians and bicyclists. The ATMP is really intended to fill in those details,” multi-modal transportation planner Martin Ince said.
The ATMP looks to be “more transformational than incremental,” according to Ince, meaning bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure will be emphasized in future transportation planning.
Ince said the city will look to avoid overbuilding for cars.
“We are going to pursue a wide range of solutions and provide multiple options for mobility," he said. "When people think of travel choices, not only do they have multiple options, but all of those are good, feasible and legitimate options."
He said the approach will be “well-rounded,” and will consider multiple community objectives and values, such as taking steps to make Flagstaff more environmentally sustainable.
The draft plan includes a number of goals and policies with a high level of support for walking and biking.
Ince said strategies and actions in the plan are organized around six topics: infrastructure; maintenance and operations; support and encouragement; safety; transportation and land use planning; and evaluation.
Addressing future pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, Ince said the plan includes a list of prioritized projects across sidewalks, bikeways, crossings, bridges, tunnels and the Flagstaff Urban Trail System.
The draft asks the city to develop a 20-year program to construct infrastructure improvements using funding from Flagstaff’s voter-approved transportation sales tax and a $5.5 million dollar grant recently awarded to the Mountain Line transit system for bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
“We can transition rather seamlessly from plan to project to program to design to construction, and actually get some things built with the money that we currently have available,” Ince said.
But the ATMP is not ready to go before Flagstaff City Council just yet, and will enter a 60-day public review process before the scheduled March approval.
Ince said the city wants to be sure that the public’s interests are included in the final document before it is formalized through a resolution.
City staff this month released a complete draft of the plan for public review, accessible by visiting the city’s website. It is the first step in the final 60-day review process that will call on city commissions, stakeholder groups and members of the public to submit feedback.
Ince said community engagement will include a public survey, presentations to commissions and stakeholder groups, along with a series of community open houses scheduled in October. The public survey is already live on the city’s website and includes a short questionnaire for the public to fill out. The survey is set to run through Nov. 19.
Members of the public may also choose to attend one of five of the open houses next month. The open houses will take place virtually Wednesday, Sept. 29, from 6 to 7 p.m.; Oct. 7 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 19 from noon to 1 p.m.; and Oct. 27 from 5:50 to 6:30 p.m. A single in-person session will be hosted at Bushmaster Park on Oct. 16 at noon.
At the conclusion of the public review period, the document will be shown to the City’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Bicycle Advisory Committee, Transportation Commission, and Planning and Zoning Commission for detailed review before returning to the city council for a work session, according to city staff.
The work session will bring a more detailed discussion of the plan to Council early next year before it is considered for final approval.
Just over a week after the U.S. Forest Service surprised many with the cancellation of the second phase of one of the country’s largest forest restoration projects, local stakeholders, environmentalists and industry leaders found themselves chewing over the implications of the change Wednesday.
The meeting was largely forward-looking as groups endeavor to make the Four Forest Restoration Initiative achieve its end goals: treating millions of acres of forests across the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests in order to improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Nonetheless, some stakeholders questioned whether the initiative, often referred to as 4FRI, should change the strategy to best achieve those goals moving forward.
Others called for much more transparency about what went so wrong that it led to the canceled phase 2 after so many years of work, and the creation of a more open process moving forward.
“It seems to me that there is this line where some information needs to come out so that we can actually understand, because I've been scratching my head a little bit over the last week,” said Pascal Berlioux, executive director at the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization. “If we don't know what did not work out, do we fix it?”
The Forest Service had listed several challenges that had led it to cancel the phase 2 contract, including road maintenance, compensation for companies’ investments should the project end early, the destination for biomass created, and determining the number of acres and location for the project.
The meeting also came as 4FRI has found itself in a moment of internal change as well. The meeting was the last one to be attended by Jeremy Kruger in his role as 4FRI chief executive for the Forest Service.
About a week prior to the Forest Service announcing it would be pulling back on phase 2, Kruger informed 4FRI stakeholders that he would be moving to a position in New Mexico with the Bureau of Land Management.
Kruger said Tami Conner, who served with the Forest Service for over a decade, will be taking over as 4FRI chief executive.
“We have our work laid out for us, our sleeves rolled up, and we're ready to go,” Conner told the stakeholder group.
That work could include yet another request for proposals for phase 2 of 4FRI, said Elaine Kohrman, who is with the Forest Service’s southwestern office.
But Kohrman and other forest officials suggested that the Forest Service is open to moving forward in other ways depending on the feedback of industry partners and stakeholders.
“We know, lessons learned, that we designed this effort in kind of a black box mode and we don't want to do that again. We want to design it in a very transparent, open way, where everyone can show up and offer what their needs are and their objectives,” Kohrman said.
Still, that may be easier said than done, especially if a second federal contract is in the works. Federal contract law often prevents details of the process and design of the contract from being public.
A meeting of industry partners, including New Life Power that recently opened a sawmill just west of Flagstaff, is planned for Oct. 12 in Holbrook to begin discussing those issues.
But during the meeting, some stakeholders said they believe the end of the phase 2 contract showed another strategy was needed if 4FRI was to meet its goals.
That point was most succinctly voiced by Grand Canyon Trust Executive Director Ethan Aumack.
“The cancellation of the most recent RFP combined with the fact that we've seen less than 5 percent of the first contract treated with less than one year left in the contract provides us two very clear and convergent signals,” Aumack said, adding that he believed managed and controlled burns may be the best way for 4FRI to move forward.
While industry partners would always be part of the solution, Aumack said, he didn’t want that side of 4FRI to hold back forest treatments across the board.
“I believe our large landscape objectives restoration would need to be met will need to be met by using relatively limited, strategically placed mechanical thinning treatments and fire at a much more extensive level than we had originally planned,” Aumack said.
And he wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Several stakeholders, primarily those representing conservation groups and environmental organizations, spoke in support of a change in strategy.
But Brad Worsley, president of Novo Power -- which operates a biomass plant near Snowflake -- pushed back on that sentiment. Worsley pointed out that outside the now-canceled RFP process, industry has been making steady progress on treating acres of the forest off of individual timber sales.
Worsley added that burning leftover biomass in facilities makes more environmental and economic sense.
“We have to prove that this can be done. And I would just argue that current industry, especially on the east side of state, has shown the ability to [treat] 15,000 plus acres year over year because of this little biomass plant,” Worsley said.