The primary reason for delay in preventing further population increase was quite simply that no one knew what action would be appropriate. The situation did not appear disastrous in 1920, and foresters had no way of predicting how rapidly the deer herd was growing or even if the number of deer was still increasing. Moreover, officials in the Park Service were continually engineering new campaigns to entice more tourists to the Grand Canyon and hoped the deer on the North Rim would become a major attraction in their own right. It seemed foolish to do anything until the scientists or wildlife experts understood the situation more fully.

Even if the federal government reached some agreement on how deer within the preserve ought to be managed, any action that involved actually killing deer faced numerous obstacles. Those who favored hunting needed to establish the legality of hunting in the preserve. More crucially, National Park Service policy strictly forbid hunting on its lands. In addition, state game departments held jurisdiction over hunting on all public and private land. Arizona became a state in 1912, and in the early 1920s the state government favored tourism around the Grand Canyon over hunting (Foster, 1970). The Forest Service in particular recognized that its legal right to kill deer was questionable, at best. Hunting on the Kaibab became legal only after years of legal suits following the arrest of unlicensed Forest Service hunters by state game wardens.

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Government officials surveyed the preserve repeatedly to assess the situation. Beginning in 1922, scientists from the U. S. Bureau of Biological Survey agreed that the deer population required dramatic reduction. Other scientists who visited the plateau and surrounding lands remained uncertain, and some argued that there was no reason to consider reducing the deer herd because the vegetation on much of the plateau was still in excellent condition. At the request of Forest Service officials, the Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture commissioned a study of the plateau. This established the Kaibab Investigating Committee composed of biologists, foresters, conservationists, and hunters.


In the summer of 1924, the committee visited the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve to assess the condition of the deer and their food supply. Many officials hoped the findings of this group would lead to a new policy for the preserve. Those who hoped the situation could be resolved quickly were disappointed when the experts did not reach agreement on a number of key issues. Their estimates of the number of deer ranged from 50,000 up to 100,000. Some reported that the food supply remained good; others assessed it as fair; and still others thought it was poor. They could not agree on any single solution to the problem. They suggested a range of options, from taking no action, to trapping and shipping deer elsewhere, to killing half the herd outright.

In the fall of 1924, the Forest Service chose a combination of all three options, starting with hunting. They opened the plateau to hunters without the permission of the state of Arizona - leading to a series of arrests - and without even notifying the National Park Service of their intentions. The Forest Service tried its second option by organizing an effort to drive some of the deer off the plateau, into the Grand Canyon, across the Colorado River, and up to the South Rim.

 
 


Zane Grey, the famous western writer, promoted and participated in this drive. Despite the assistance of local ranchers and Native Americans, the attempt failed completely. Deer, as many experienced ranchers and naturalists well knew, do not congregate and move in large groups like cattle or sheep.

This flurry of activity on the Kaibab Plateau brought unprecedented fame to the emerging controversy there. Popular articles appeared in many of the nature and sporting magazines of the time. The involvement of a famous author, heads of several federal agencies, and numerous well-known biologists captured the public's interest.

Because action to reduce the deer had been too little and too late, many scientists and Forest Service officials predicted that deer would starve by the thousands. While few carcasses of starved or frozen deer were actually found, most visitors to the area the following spring reported seeing fewer deer than in previous years. Many supposed that undernourished deer became easy prey for coyotes or died in rough terrain where no one ever found them. From this indirect and generally unreliable evidence, the deer herd's ruin became established.


 
Last updated: October 10, 2001; Created: 20 April 2001.