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Local researcher aims to protect bison in Southwest

May 12th, 2013 9:42 pm by Jennifer Sprouse

Local researcher aims to protect bison in Southwest

As it stands, the Grand Canyon National Park considers bison to be non-native species to the Southwest, but Jeff Martin, graduate student in the East Tennessee State University department of geosciences, hopes to prove them wrong.
Growing up on a bison ranch in Wisconsin, Martin said his love and appreciation for bison led him to study the animals while pursuing geology first at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and then transferring to become a degree recipient at ETSU.
Continuing his education as an ETSU graduate student studying paleontology, he said part of his research and readings on bison led him to question the Grand Canyon’s claims about the animals.
“The Grand Canyon National Park ... considers bison to be a non-native species and has been human-introduced. For me, using the archeological and paleontological record, the fossil record, I can see if bison were in the area in a recent time span, before the Spanish were here (bringing with them cattle) and taking their documentation and their notes as they traveled around the area,” Martin said.
He said cattle and bison specimens “are ... easily confused, and being able to differentiate the two is very important.”
Martin said so far he’s found many specimens of bison in the greater Grand Canyon area and the Colorado Plateau. He said Grand Canyon National Park officials have been trying to relocate or hunt the bison population of about 300 that are now settled on the north rim of the canyon grounds, but have so far been unsuccessful.
He said the bison, which are supposed to be living on land governed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in the low-lying desert, have migrated by themselves to the north rim, where they have easily adapted.
“They’re happy where they’re at. They’re not going to go back,” Martin said. “In the low desert, they don’t have very many resources.”
According to a news release, conservation policies from the U.S. Department of the Interior prevent non-native species from being considered for federal protection and conservation, but if Martin can prove that bison existed after the Ice Age on the Colorado Plateau, it would prove to land managers that the animals were native and his research and findings would help in the conservation of bison in the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau areas.
Currently, Martin has been seeking funding to gain access to radiocarbon dates on bison bones from various collection sites.
“I’m trying to get funding to get radiocarbon dates, so when I do find these animals that are in the collections, I know precisely where that came from (on) its dig site on the Colorado Plateau, or even the Grand Canyon area. I need to know precisely when (the bison) was there, and that radiocarbon date is the way to do it,” he said.
Martin said radiocarbon dates cost approximately $700 apiece, and he’s looking at obtaining three of them.
He said the National Buffalo Foundation has given him $1,400 for two of the three radiocarbon dates, and has set up a fundraising goal of $2,100 on for the public to donate.
With a projected graduation date of May 2014, Martin said his short-term goal is to help with the conservation of the species, particularly in the Southwest.
“The long-term (goal) is to eventually learn ... how these animals adapted from the Ice Age to today’s climate through all of those micro-climate changes that have happened through the past and how to be able to manage them as ranchers through the future as the climate changes,” Martin said.
According to the release, Martin will present his findings to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in October, after completing his travels from the Grand Canyon area to do research.
Martin’s research is being funded by the ETSU geosciences department, as well as some funding from the East Tennessee State University & General Shale Brick Natural History Museum Visitor Center and Gray Fossil Site.
To donate to Martin’s research, visit To learn more about his research objectives, visit

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