We Should Remember that the Buffalo Still Roam

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Mr. Punke, a former White House aide and the author of Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West (2007), is a writer for the History News Service.

There's an undercurrent of despair and even hopelessness in recent reports about global warming -- a drift that carries a real risk of paralysis, the sense that it's too late to do anything. But while our landscape is scarred by centuries of environmental abuse, there are also monumental environmental victories, and therefore hope.
One such hopeful victory is found in the story of the buffalo. In 1902, only 23 buffalo remained alive in the American wild -- the hounded remnant of a herd that once numbered 30 million. Almost no one believed the buffalo could be saved from extinction, including those who cared. The Smithsonian Institution, for example, in 1886 mounted one of the last expeditions to hunt the buffalo. It aimed to kill 20 animals for museum dioramas, so that visitors at least might see what once had been.
Anyone depressed by the political obstacles to reversing global warming can find inspiration in the challenges confronting the pioneers who saved the buffalo. They faced the full-bore opposition of Gilded Age America, an era founded on the rapacious ethics of the robber barons.    
Between 1871 and 1883, commercial hide hunters slaughtered buffalo by the millions. The U.S. government failed utterly to halt the general massacre, though in 1874 both houses of Congress succeeded in passing a bill that might have saved the herd. President Grant killed it by pocket veto, viewing the destruction of the buffalo as a key weapon in the escalating war against American Indians.
Extirpated on the prairie, the buffalo found their last, tenuous refuge in the newly established Yellowstone National Park. There, though, they stood in the path of the railroads, the most potent political force of the Gilded Age.  For a decade in the 1880s and 1890s, the railroad lobby successfully blocked legislation that aimed to enforce protections for Yellowstone wildlife. The railroads wanted a line through the heart of the park to connect with a prosperous mining operation. Without this link, which would have destroyed vital habitat, the railroads refused to let Yellowstone protection measures move through Congress.
How -- in the face of contrary conventional wisdom, economic and military incentives for destruction and governmental and industrial opposition -- were the buffalo saved? There was no silver bullet, but rather a confluence of critical actors and events that today reads like a case-study for environmental success.

Beginning in the first half of the 19th century, cultural leaders helped to create a context in which Americans began to see nature as something far different than their ancestors. The paintings of Thomas Moran, for example, showed Congress the singular beauty of the Yellowstone region. Writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, with his character Hawkeye, created heroes who stood morally opposed to environmental conquest.
In the second half of the 19th century, leaders in the journalism helped to transform a growing public appreciation for nature into a political force.  For the buffalo, no one was more important than a journalist/scientist named George Bird Grinnell. Barely known today, Grinnell used his position as the editor of Forest and Stream magazine to transform sportsmen into a powerful grassroots constituency.
Grinnell eventually focused this diffuse constituency into an effective lobby. With his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Grinnell in 1888 formed the first national environmental lobby, a small group of influential sportsmen called the Boone and Crockett Club.
Grinnell and Roosevelt were masters at seizing political opportunity. In the winter of 1894, a Forest and Stream reporter captured photos of a Yellowstone poacher's grisly handiwork -- six slaughtered buffalo. When Forest and Stream published the photos, the resulting public outcry finally allowed Congress to overcome the railroads and pass a law creating meaningful protection for wildlife in the park. For the first time in American history, the environment prevailed in a national confrontation against countervailing economic interests.
The refuge of Yellowstone National Park became what Grinnell called the "single rock," the foundation upon which the population of wild buffalo could be rebuilt. Today, there are nearly 4,000 buffalo in Yellowstone and thousands more in other U.S. reserves.
More heartening still, a group called the American Prairie Foundation is working with local landowners to reintroduce buffalo to their native plains. On May 1, 2007, a buffalo calf on APF's Montana reserve will turn one year old.  The calf is the first genetically pure buffalo to be born on the Montana plains in more than a century. The birth is a milestone worthy of celebration -- and its history is worth remembering as our own generation confronts the awesome challenges of today.   

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Carmelo Lisciotto - 6/15/2007

Some very good points on conservation.

Carmelo Lisciotto

Andrew D. Todd - 6/14/2007

Well, on the basis of a bit of Googling, raw packed Bison Burgers, sausages, etc., seem to cost about five or ten dollars per pound, based on a bulk order of ten pounds or so, plus whatever the express shipping comes to. Premium prices, in fact. It doesn't mean very much that buffalo meat comes in the form of hamburger. You may be familiar with the kinds of arguments that Siegfried Giedion made about hamburgers, etc., in _Mechanization Takes Command_ (1948), that making all meat into hamburger is an attempt to turn it into a kind of vegetable. However, there is Elizabeth Rozin's interesting counter-argument in _The Primal Cheeseburger_ (1994) that the cheeseburger (or something analogous like a chili dog) is the ultimate culmination and perfection of meat-eating. The USDA standards of quality are premised on the idea that one is going to eat meat as a steak. If anything, the criteria for hamburger are reversed. Good hamburger meat should be on the lean side, which means meat which would be tough if it had not been through a meat grinder, In those terms, a buffalo burger is a standard of perfection, not a byproduct.

Apparently, the great virtue of bison is that they are big enough that they can live wild through a Montana winter, digging their way down through the snow to get at the grass. That means they are much less tainted by the whole baggage of factory farming. They don't live in stalls, so they are less liable to infectious disease, and don't have to be fed antibiotics, that kind of thing. My guess is that bison might gradually spread and drive out cattle, at least as far down as Nebraska or Kansas, especially if agricultural price supports are diminished. I don't know if you have ever heard the term, "high farming." It was used to describe a kind of subsidy-protected farming in England, circa 1850-1875, which was strikingly similar to the present subsidy-driven pattern of American farming, with the same very heavy emphasis on row crops and mechanization. High farming eventually collapsed under free trade, and the competition of the American Midwest and Argentina.

John Charles Crocker - 6/13/2007

Men can and sometimes do push natural systems beyond the point that they can recover on their own or sometimes at all. Man did not cease that indiscriminate slaughter until it was to late for the bison to recover without assistance, that was the point.

Your comment that nature left alone recovers is true to a point. Regardless of what we do, given enough time nature will reclaim what is left to it. That does not mean that the nature that does the reclaiming will bear any resemblance to what was there before. The question comes down to whether or not you value the natural world as it is, or whether you think it is only as valuable as what we can extract from it.

As far as current bison usage it appears that the lower quality meat is largely used for sausages, hot dogs, and jerky. The hooves are most likely sold for agar. As for the rest I would guess that most of it is wasted, though I hope your guess is more accurate. Why would efficient use of the animal be something we would not want to hear about?

Vernon Clayson - 6/13/2007

Mr. Crocker, if, at anytime during the indiscriminate slaughter of the buffalo herds, man had ceased the killing the natural order would have done the same thing that the men who take credit for saving them did. Part of the decimation of the herds was a shameful government policy, "mobilization", to bring Native Americans to heel, much of the rest was for fun and for profit. "Buffalo burgers", buffalo steaks", makes use of the prime meat, what's done with the rest of the animal is probably something we don't want to hear about. Fertilizer? Feed for other animals?
Shoes and clothing?

John Charles Crocker - 6/12/2007

The recovery of the Bison was not an instance of nature left alone recovering. There was quite a government and private mobilization to save the bison. Many if not most of the remaining bison are in managed herds and are regularly killed for "buffalo burgers" and "buffalo steaks." The idea of rendering them for fuel is quite the non sequitur.

Vernon Clayson - 6/11/2007

Really hard to believe that a business, in this instance, the railroads, could influence our congress, As if! They still do, of course. Recovery of the bison is an amazing feat and proves that left alone, nature recovers. Hopefully, no one will complain that their flatulence adds to global warming or, heaven forbid, that, being one of the few large animals remaining, they could be killed, melted down or allowed to rot, to provide a fossil fuel.