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Earth Notes: Arizona Bison

Four bison with shaggy brown fur stand in a grassland with a fence in the distance
Arizona Game and Fish Department
Bison in House Rock Valley

Bison are among the most emblematic animals of the American West. Many Indigenous peoples relied on them for survival. Some, such as the Zuni, have oral histories of hunting them and performing a Buffalo Dance ceremony.

Bison are known primarily as Plains animals, but historically they did extend into the Southwest. Now wildlife managers are taking steps to bring them back to the region.

Arizona hosts herds in three separate locations—Raymond Wildlife Area east of Flagstaff, the Kaibab Plateau on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, and in House Rock Valley at the foot of the Kaibab.

In House Rock, the present herd dates to 2017 when the Arizona Game and Fish Department brought in 15 yearlings from the American Prairie Reserve in Montana. Game and Fish program manager Rob Nelson says young bison were chosen because they are more “naïve” and flexible, and likely to stay faithful to the site.

Equally important is that these newcomers are a pure genetic strain. In the past, at places like House Rock, bison were crossbred with cattle. Today wildlife managers focus bison conservation efforts on true wild heritage.

The House Rock herd is fenced inside a 4,000-acre pasture. There are about 30 bison now, and the goal is to reach about a hundred. Game and Fish manages the area in partnership with the neighboring Kaibab National Forest, and they’re looking to expand the fenced area. Hunting the bison is permitted in season, and the public can visit and view these iconic animals throughout the year.

This Earth Note was written by Rose Houk and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Rose Houk is a Flagstaff-based writer and editor, specializing in natural history and environmental topics.  Rose was a founding contributor of KNAU's Earth Notes and has written nearly 200 scripts for the series. She is also the author of many publications about national park and monuments, along with audio productions. 

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