Grand Canyon Officials Research the Impact of Non-Native Species

The Grand Canyon has a fragile and particular ecosystem that must be preserved, and while we know that now, information on how different factors impact an ecosystem over a long period of time hasn’t always been as available as it is now. In the past, many species have been introduced into the Grand Canyon, the surrounding natural park, and the river that continues to form the canyon itself.

Species introduced by humans in the past include…

  • Rocky Mountain elk (to replace extinct Merriam elk)
  • Crayfish
  • Cheatgrass
  • Quagga mussels
  • Bison (to breed with cattle)
  • Salt cedar
  • Brown trout (to make the Colorado River a more lucrative fishery)

These species and dozens of others were introduced into the fragile Grand Canyon ecosystem at one point, and at the time, it probably seemed like an excellent idea. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to predict how a species will flourish, and when the non-native species begin to inhibit native species’ ability to thrive, the ecosystem becomes more and more difficult to manage. Uncontrollable wildlife could lead to the destruction of much of the park’s natural beauty, and possibly even the extinction of native species.

For many species, the issues they present are largely environmental, but in some rare cases, it goes deeper. Bison, one of the species artificially introduced to the area, have become a staple of the “old west” landscape, and many people look forward to seeing these animals. Against legions of people with sentimental attachment to bison, it’s difficult to control the herd that now dominates the Grand Canyon North Rim. The National Park service is having difficulty controlling the herd, and would definitely run into issues if it campaigned to have them removed. Public outcry would simply prevent their removal, despite its environmental benefits.

Grand Canyon National Park officials, the U.S. Forest Service, Arizona Game and Fish, and students of Northern Arizona University are currently hard at work collecting information and documenting the impact that these non-native species are having in the hopes that evidence gathered will make it easier to convince a sentimental public that something must be done about the bison herd. At some undetermined point in the future, the herd will need to be broken up or reduced in size. Hopefully, with the research being collected, the committees involved can send some of the bison back to Yellowstone National Park, where their ancestors originally came from.

Rocky Mountain elk are causing immense environmental impact, and hopefully, their impact will be easier to address. These non-native elk have an insatiable appetite for young aspen trees, making it impossible for these trees to thrive. Elk aren’t the only factor inhibiting the growth of aspen trees, but if the elk were deterred, the trees would stand a chance against the fungus, drought, and conifers. One proposed solution will simply make the young aspen trees unappealing – simply plant disgusting aspen stalks that the elk won’t eat. This new crop has already been genetically altered and it will be ready for its trial taste-testing this summer.

How do you think park officials can humanely control the wildlife populations? Why is wildlife important to the Grand Canyon experience? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!