Lessons Learned from the Kaibab Catastrophe

By Hartt Wixom

A Failed Game Preserve and a Fawn Farm Fiasco

The Kaibab Plateau is known for large bucks, like this one on display at the local gas station.
The Kaibab Plateau is known for large bucks, like this one on display at a Fredonia, AZ gas station.

The town of Fredonia, Ariz. is known primarily as a place you pass through from St. George to Kanab or the Grand Canyon. A little over a thousand souls live here at the junction of U.S. 89A and Arizona 389.

But a few decades ago, Fredonia was a major hub of serious wildlife management. (The Piute name for Fredonia is “Atsika,” means where the hunters dehorned their deer.) In the 1920s Fredonia was the frontier gateway to the out-of control mule deer populations on the Kaibab National Forest. With designation as a “game preserve,” plus an all-out war on predators, deer exploded by some estimates to 60,000 and were in danger of starving to death.

Deer fawns were brought to Fredonia to be raised until big enough to be shipped elsewhere. As a sign in the town rest center attests, the enterprise failed. Removed from their mothers and natural habitat, most of the young creatures simply did not survive.

The sign in town reads thusly: “Fawn Farming: Fredonians took on a unique but unsuccessful fundraising project in the 1920s raising fawns for the government to restock certain areas. The young fawns were caught and brought to town where they were fed on canned milk. Albert Judd remembers that when the fawns were big enough to fend for themselves, the government shipped them out in a big airplane in padded crates; however, once the fawns were set free, they were not able to survive very well. Therefore, the project was discontinued.“

Modern deer managers, of course, know that wild animals captured and in effect, “tamed,” do not do well when returned to Mother Nature. It is a reason why people are cautioned to leave fawns and young animals alone. Once domesticated, they can seldom manage on their own upon release.

Fredonia was also the base of operations in an attempt to remove excess North Rim deer by driving them across the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. Fifty five cowboys and 70 Navajo Indians gathered to take part in the attempt. One reason for the mushrooming Kaibab deer herds was that by 1924 government trappers had (in a 17-year period) killed 674 mountain lions, 3,000 coyotes, 11 timber wolves and more than 1,000 bobcats. That’s in addition to those the ranchers killed. At that time there were 20,000 cattle, 200,000 sheep and 2,000 horses pastured on the same real estate, according to a story by George Laycock in the October 1983 Outdoor Life magazine.

Deer Just Don’t Do That

A photographer was stationed on the edge of the North Rim to record and count the number of deer moving out. Fences six feet high were erected to funnel the deer in the proper direction. Arrangements were made to pay $1 for each head driven out. By end of the day, the final count was… zero. No money owed. All deer simply circled back through the circus of drivers.

This fiasco was concocted by western writer Zane Grey, according to Laycock, but one which any experienced deer hunter could have predicted. Mule deer just don’t want to leave home territory and besides, why remain ahead of the chaos when you can get behind it? As Laycock concludes, “We had learned little about the basic principles of wildlife management.”

The solution was to vacate the game preserve concept and usher in annual deer seasons. In 1929-30, licensed Arizona rifle-toters took some 9,000 deer. Modern game management was under way and since that time, the Kaibab deer herds have been kept much more in balance with their food supply. Some of the trophy deer taken in Kaibab’s “Golden Era” can be seen in Fredonia’s Sinclair Service Station. This station also displays monster elk mounts but wapiti are rare nowadays on the North Rim. A probable reason is that Arizona manages for big bucks and has allowed the elk to be eliminated.

The community was also the jumping off post for Buffalo Bill Cody’s big game hunts on the North Rim. Among his guides was one Anthony W. Ivins (for whom the community was named), although the hunters did not remain long, apparently due to weather problems.

Today, the Kaibab (and larger Arizona Strip from Marble Canyon to Nevada) provides quite possibly the top trophy deer hunting in the world, judging from entries in the Boone-Crockett and Pope-Young record books. In the non-typical category (more than four antler tines per side) in particular, the Arizona Strip is tops.

That’s what up-to-date mule deer management can do. But it took time to evolve. And Fredonia played a major role in it.

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