The Grand Canyon is an international destination where spectacular views are not the only thing that grab tourists’ attention.
Elk, once a rare sight at the national park, now regularly jam up the park’s roads, graze on hotel lawns and are not too shy about displaying their power, provoked or not. They have broken bones and caused eye injuries in the most serious circumstances, and give chase to the unsuspecting.
Park officials want to reduce those interactions with humans by depriving the elk of the food and water sources that lured them to the area: grass along the South Rim and the runoff from a water treatment facility.
Signs tell visitors to keep their distance from wildlife and warn that the animals could get aggressive, particularly during breeding season. However, getting that message out is challenging with an ever-changing audience. About 5 million people visit Grand Canyon each year and about 2,000 live there.
Roads and campsites become clogged with elk and cars, through the animals’ stubborn nature or camera-toting tourists marveling at them. A volunteer crew responded to 115 “elk jams” over 53 days last year, taking anywhere from one minute to two hours to clear up.
Grand Canyon Wildlands Council director of conservation Kim Crumbo was jogging at the Grand Canyon in 2006, when he saw a bull elk rubbing its antlers against a tree.
He said he screamed “like a banshee” when it knocked him over, breaking his leg in three places.
“They [elk] really don’t belong there,” Crumbo said. “In spite of my encounter, I still think they’re beautiful animals, magnificent. The park really needs to deal with that issue not exclusive of public safety, but from an ecological standpoint.”
The bull elk in the park weigh about 320kg, stand 1.5m tall at their shoulders and have impressive sets of antlers. Hunting generally controls elk populations, but that is prohibited at the Grand Canyon, as is feeding wildlife.
Elk brought in by train from Yellowstone National Park helped re-establish the Arizona populations after the state’s native elk became extinct about 1900.
They are now too close to the Grand Canyon’s most popular areas for comfort. Last summer, a tourist standing too close to an elk was scratched in the eye by its antlers.
Officials say it would be best to replace lawns with native vegetation that is abundant throughout the park, so that the elk do no necessarily prefer the tourist-heavy areas to other spots. They are also considering using excess water from the treatment facility to expand the park’s nursery instead of letting elk drink it as it flows over the landscape.