Bison again under fire, 50 years after film “Bless the Beasts & the Children” exposed the massacre, shocking the world
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona––The National Park Service accepted 45,000 applications from would-be volunteer bison shooters during a 48-hour window opening on May 3, 2021 at midnight.
A dozen shooters will be selected by lottery to participate in the first of four five-day culls, targeting more than 400 of the 600 bison now living in the North Rim region of Grand Canyon National Park.
That’s right: 50 years after the 1971 Stanley Kramer film Bless the Beasts and Children shocked the world by exposing an annual bison massacre held by the Arizona Game & Fish Department, the National Park Service plans to host just such a cull within a few miles of the same blood-soaked site.
Volunteers have to pack out corpses
Further, the National Park Services plans to host more bison culls in each and every year through 2025.
What may happen afterward is anyone’s guess. If the bison herd is fecund enough to rebound quickly, it could be more of the same.
“Volunteers have to complete a training on the first day and can’t select which week they participate in,” explained McClatchy newspaper syndicate reporter Maddie Capron.
“People who are chosen are then responsible to gather three to five ‘support volunteers’ to help them during the week,” Capron summarized. “They can be family members or friends.
“Volunteers will need their own camping equipment, firearms and non-lead ammunition.
Volunteers also will need to haul bison carcasses, which can be very heavy. Bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. They will need to do this on foot.”
Film hated by hunters
The film Bless the Beasts and Children was based on the 1970 best-selling novel of the same title by Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992). The film theme song became a Karen Carpenter hit.
But it was the film, most of all, viewed by millions after premiering in Germany, that helped to spark the late 20th century animal rights movement.
To this day, Bless the Beasts and Children rates right after the 1942 Walt Disney animated classic Bambi, web-searching indicates, as the film most vehemently hated by hunters and gun enthusiasts, who seem to remember it more vividly than most animal advocates.
Bless the Beasts and Children remains hated even though one of the teenaged heroes, Lawrence Teft, played by Bill Mumy, carries a BB rifle, which he uses once as a “good guy with a gun” in defense of himself and five younger friends.
Horse thieves & car thieves
The Bless the Beasts and Children plot is simple and direct. Six troubled city boys are exiled by their parents to an Arizona horse camp for the summer. Bullied as the perceived camp losers, the six are unknowingly taken to the annual Arizona Game & Fish Department bison cull by their camp counsellor, who is a participant.
Identifying with the bison instead of the posturing killers, the boys respond with ineffective confrontational protest.
Back at camp that night, unable to sleep, they resolve to return to the scene and free the hundred-odd bison who remain corralled, awaiting the next round of the multi-day cull.
Horse thieves and car thieves by the time they succeed, the surviving boys defiantly stand together at the end, facing down the hunters and their camp counsellor, who have killed their leader, a boy named Cotton, in a futile attempt to thwart the bison rescue.
The bison will eventually be rounded up again, but not easily, the boys know. The bison will be shot, sooner or later, but meanwhile the boys bought them somewhat longer lives and more experience of freedom to be the wildlife whom they are.
Film did not change wildlife management
Bless the Beasts and Children, while arguably inspiring a generation of direct action civil disobedience on behalf of animals, did not stop the Arizona Game & Fish Department bison culls.
Neither did Bless the Beasts and Children accomplish much to change the ruthless bio-xenophobic philosophy of ecological nativism underlying most wildlife management, both in the U.S. and abroad.
The bison-shooting camp counsellor, whom the boys call Wheaties, bluntly explains it: wildlife exists to be shot. Hunters pay to shoot wildlife. Bison, then officially considered non-native to the Grand Canyon region, are––from the traditional wildlife management perspective––not good for anything else.
Wheaties calls the doomed bison “dings,” by which he means something useless, with no reason he perceives to live. Then he calls the boys “dings.”
The boys get the message: the bison value their lives as much as they do their own.
Bless the Beasts and Children might, in particular, be said to have indirectly inspired decades of work by a succession of animal advocacy organizations to protect the Yellowstone National Park bison herd from similar culling, when bison wander out of the park into Montana.
Yet the organization Buffalo Field Campaign, leading those efforts since 1997, has not taken up the cause of the Grand Canyon bison herd because, in the Buffalo Field Campaign view, the Grand Canyon bison are not “real” bison, some of them having been crossed more than 100 years ago with domestic cattle in a failed scheme to commercially breed “beefalo.”
Even to Buffalo Field Campaign, the Grand Canyon bison remain “dings.”
Wayne Pacelle spoke up for the Grand Canyon bison––once
Indeed, ANIMALS 24-7 web-searching found record of only one animal advocate, Animal Wellness Action president Wayne Pacelle, piping up for the Grand Canyon National Park bison in the seven years since the National Park Service first moved to cull them, on April Fools Day 2014.
Blogged Pacelle, then president of the Humane Society of the U.S., on December 11, 2017, “If it happens, the National Park Service will be targeting the very symbol of the agency itself and our national mammal.
“Matthew Scully, onetime senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush, deconstructed the flimsy claims that 400 to 600 bison in the 1.2-million-acre park are too numerous for the land and water resources there,” Pacelle wrote.
“Scully closely examined a little-noticed environmental assessment of the project and found it lacking of any science-based rationale for the plan, yet full of platitudes about prospective bison impacts, with the agency complaining about ‘soil disturbance’ and “erosion potential’,” Pacelle continued, noting that Scully is “himself an Arizona resident and author of the book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.”
Bison presence at the Grand Canyon “is utterly benign”
“On such vague and conjectural grounds,” wrote Scully, “we are supposed to accept as unavoidable the miserable death of these beautiful creatures––whose presence at the Grand Canyon, it becomes clear, is utterly benign, causing no harm to anyone who leaves them in peace.”
Scully, according to Pacelle, asked Arizona governor Doug Ducey and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to cancel the cull. Obviously Ducey and Zinke did not care to disappoint either their hook-and-bullet voting constituency or ecological nativist conservationists who frequently transfer their angst about human immigration, especially from Mexico, to the nearest “non-native” animal species.
The Humane Society of the U.S., Pacelle said, “offered to assist in the creation of an alternative management plan, under the supervision of the [National Park Service], for a fertility control program that would put the brakes on further population growth, even if there have been no adverse environmental consequences from the behavior of Grand Canyon National Park’s small herd of bison.
Fertility control works for Santa Catalina bison
“A similar program is underway on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of California,” Pacelle reminded, “and fertility control there has worked with remarkable efficiency.”
In fact, the Santa Catalina Island bison herd numbered about 600 when the fertility control program started there––about the same as the high-end estimate of the Grand Canyon bison herd. The Santa Catalina herd is now stable at about 150 bison, within the numbers to which the National Park Service proposes as the Grand Canyon target population.
The Santa Catalina Island bison, according to legend, are descended from a herd imported in 1924 for use in the silent film version of the Zane Grey western The Vanishing American. But Catalina Islander newspaper columnist Jim Watson noted in 2009 that there are no bison in The Vanishing American, while an October 6, 1938 Catalina Islander item mentioned that the bison were actually imported for the filming of The Thundering Herd, a silent film released in 1925.
Grand Canyon Cattle Company
The Grand Canyon National Park bison may share some California ancestry with the Santa Catalina Island herd.
According to Grand Canyon historian Tony Mandile, writing in 1988, bison hunter Charles Jones “and his friend, lion hunter Jim Owens, captured a herd of buffalo [bison] in the Texas panhandle in the 1880s and moved them to Kansas. Later, part of the herd wound up in Monterey, California,” a 300-mile, 14-hour ferry boat ride from Santa Catalina.
“Jones transferred 35 [bison] from there by way of Lund, Utah to the North Kaibab [North Rim region of the Grand Canyon] in 1905,” Mandile wrote. “He brought another 87 from the Kansas herd to Arizona a year later.
“Jones eventually became disenchanted with raising buffalo and rounded up as many as possible in 1909,” Mandile continued. “He drove the buffs into Utah and sold them. Unknowingly, however, he left some strays behind. These became the property of the Grand Canyon Cattle Company, owned by none other than Jimmie Owens.
“By 1927, when the state [of Arizona] purchased the herd for $10,000, “ Mandile recounted, “the stray buffs had increased to 98 animals. The herds inhabiting the House Rock Valley and the Raymond Ranch, established in 1945, are the descendants of those.”
“Shooting from less than 100 yards”
Explained Associated Press in October 1971, after Bless the Beasts and Children became an international hit, “Each year the state [of Arizona] holds the buffalo ‘hunt’ to keep the herds at House Rock Valley and Raymond Ranch at about 200 buffalo each.
“The animals are shot by hunters selected by drawing after paying $40 each for a one-in-a-lifetime permit, which entitles them to one quarter of the meat from the animal killed.
“The buffalo are released into a fenced arroyo in twos or threes,” Associated Press said. “An equal number of hunters, backed by state game employees, do the shooting from less than 100 yards,” exactly as Bless the Beasts and Children depicted.
“One of the hunters” in 1971, Associated Press mentioned, “was Lester Cody of Gila Bend, Arizona, great-grandnephew of William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody,” who turned from killing bison to trying to help preserve and protect the bison species.
Bison walked out of range
The price of a permit to shoot bison gradually increased under Arizona Game & Fish Department management to $360 for a yearling calf, up to $1,100 for a mature bull.
The annual culls became a big money-maker. But the bison “began walking up the Kaibab Plateau in the late 1990s and into Grand Canyon National park, seeking better forage,” recounted Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca on April 2, 2014.
Fonseca appears to have been among the few people who realized that the April Fools Day proposal by National Park Service to hold a cull hunt was not a cruel joke.
“The state of Arizona owns and maintains the bison outside the national park, but the animals now are making their home almost exclusively within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park,” explained Fonseca.
Excuses to preserve “hunt”
Grand Canyon National Park, at the time, was not open to hunting.
Therefore, Fonseca wrote, “Federal and state officials are looking at methods to manage the estimated 350-450 bison in a way that rids them from the park and allows for a free-ranging population that can be hunted on nearby [U.S. Forest Service] land.”
Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Dave Uberuaga alleged that the bison “still have about 10% cattle in their genes, have reduced vegetation in meadows to nubs, traveled into Mexican spotted owl habitat, knocked over walls at American Indian cliff dwellings below the North Rim, defecated in lakes and left ruts in wetlands,” Fonseca recited.
How the bison might have climbed old growth trees to disturb spotted owls, or descended into steep canyons to damage cliff dwellings, neither Uberuaga nor Fonseca explained.
Not “beefalo” after all
A legal path was cleared to cull the Grand Canyon National Park bison in July 2016, after the National Park Service published an environmental assessment of the cull which conceded that the bison are a bona fide native species, not “beefalo.”
“Digging deeper into history—some 11,000 years or so—wildlife officials concluded from archaeological records that the region has long been home to small, dispersed herds of bison, and the park should be considered the edge of the animal’s historic range,” summarized TakePart associate editor for environment and wildlife Taylor Hill.
“The designation as native wildlife,” explained Hill, “means the option for wildlife officials to completely remove the animals from the park is off the table. But the report suggests that hundreds of the animals need to be removed to get the herd down to a ‘sustainable’ level—estimated at between 80 and 200 individuals.
“We’re not going to manage them to get rid of all of them,” Grand Canyon National Park acting chief of science and resource management Glenn Plumb told Grand Canyon News.
Plan “would turn Grand Canyon National Park into a game farm”
“There will be no hunting in Grand Canyon National Park,” Plumb said, apparently differentiating between a ‘cull’ and a ‘hunt,’ even though the outcome is the same for the animals.
“Long-term hunting will continue, as I understand, on National Forest lands,” Plumb added.
“The end goal,” wrote Hill, “would be to keep a ‘very low’ population density in a 330-square-mile area across Grand Canyon National Park and the Kaibab National Forest.”
Then-Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility [PEER] executive director Jeff Ruch, Hill continued, “feels that the report gives park officials the leeway to allow hunting, as one management option listed in the report notes the opportunity for ‘skilled volunteers’ to lethally remove bison in the park, allowing for up to 15% of the herd to be killed annually until the goal population of under 200 is reached.”
This appears to be exactly what is happening, five years later.
“This plan would turn Grand Canyon National Park into a game farm managed for the benefit of Arizona Game & Fish,” predicted Ruch, adding, “Slaughter should not become a routine park wildlife management strategy.”
Ruch, PEER executive director from 1997 to 2019, is now director of Pacific PEER, headquartered in California.
Sierra Club favors bison removal
Alicyn Gitlin, Grand Canyon coordinator for the Sierra Club, told Associated Press in 2015, Hill recalled, “that she would rather the bison be removed from the area entirely.”
Said Gitlin, “I’m very nervous about there being a perpetual dependency on this use of people having to go into the park and shoot.”
But Gitlin, as of April 29, 2021, told Shanti Lerner and Jay Cannon of USA Today that she continues to favor bison removal, though she would prefer to see more bison transferred to Native American tribes in lieu of culling.
“Since 2019, 88 bison have been transferred to five Native American tribes through a partnership with the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, which represents 69 tribes in 19 states,” mentioned Lerner and Cannon.