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Why the Buffalo Still Roam

by Michael Punke on Apr 17, 2007

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.

Michael 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.