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A Beefalo Invasion Is Causing Trouble in the Grand Canyon

Hundreds of the hybrid animals are drying up water resources and messing with the ecosystem, eliciting calls for culling

A herd of domesticated beefalo in Montana. After interbreeding, free-ranging beefalos currently causing problems in the Grand Canyon appear both physically and genetically close to native bison. (TUNS/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

What do you get when you cross bison with domestic cattle? The beefalo—and a potentially big environmental problem in parts of the west.

Intentionally bred bison-cattle hybrids have been around since the early 1900s. But the “true” beefalo emerged in the 1960s from efforts to combine the bison’s hardiness and meat quality with the cow’s fertility, milking ability and relative ease of handling.

Inevitably, some beefalo escaped their enclosures, running wild and finding refuge in parkland where hunting isn’t permitted. Thanks to that protection and a lack of predators, the number of beefalo in the Grand Canyon National Park, which appear both physically and genetically close to native bison, have grown by an estimated 50 percent a year

Now, as BBC News reports, officials are reporting that over 600 beefalo are wrecking environmental havoc on Grand Canyon’s North Rim. They’re eating up grassland and compacting the soil with their weight. They’re even being accused of wanton destruction: Native American groups say that the animals’ tendency to rub themselves against standing objects has led to the destruction of certain ancient stone ruins.

Most worrisome is the animals’ impact on the region’s limited water sources. Beefalo are thirsty and huge—they can drink up to 10 gallons on one watering hole visit. "When we're looking at 2-300 bison using this one water source, they can drink it dry pretty quickly," Martha Hahn, science and natural resources manager at Grand Canyon National Park told the BBC.

The end result: the herds of beefalo and their impact on the terrain may be squeezing out other species and throwing the ecosystem out of balance.

Authorities are considering just what to do with the problem herds. Barbed-wire fences erected to limit how far the beefalo can roam haven’t worked—the beefalo just plow right through them. Hunting appears to be off the table, as Native American groups object to killing animals for sport. Corralling and herding are top candidates for dealing with the animals, according to the BBC. Also suggested: dosing them with birth control to limit their numbers.

Meanwhile, farm-raised beefalo meat is available from some ranchers and grocers for the curious carnivore. Advocates of the meat say that it’s a healthier alternative, claiming that it provides six-times lower cholesterol and four times less fat than beef.

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