High-Profile Allies in the Abortion War
What Can We Learn From the Failures of Desegregation?

Pilgrimage to Mount Hornaday

Mt. Hornaday in Yellowstone National Park

Alexis Rizzuto is an Editor at Beacon Press. 

BECHTEL-MrHornadaysWarAs an editor, I feel very fortunate to have worked with Stefan Bechtel on his book about the early and fierce conservationist William Temple Hornaday. As an eco-activist myself, I was captivated by Hornaday's story, that he went up against circumstances just as dire as we face today—so many species just about to blink out of existence due to the actions of some humans and the apathy of others—and said, “No, I will not allow this to happen.” And then fought by every means he could for the rest of his life.

His crusade for the bison is especially inspiring. Like the flocks of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, which would darken the sky for miles, the bison herds historically thundered by the millions over the Great Plains. But, as Hornaday said, there is “no volume of wild life so great that civilized man could not quickly exterminate it.” The massive bison slaughter was an intentional act of genocide, against the Plains Indians with the bison as proxy: from millions to a few hundred. His description of the carcass-covered plains, where once bison families stood peacefully eating prairie grass, is heart-rending. But thanks in good part to Hornaday, descendants of those last few still survive, and I was lucky enough to be able to visit Yellowstone last fall to see them for myself.

The first bison I saw was a solitary male, out in a field grazing. Not too close but within good binocular distance. To me, this was an almost mythic bison: I looked at him through the spiritual debt my species owed his. He was a magnificent representative of his almost-extinguished race, and I had the urge to bow in respect. At that moment I recalled that the “Indian name” I had as a child (my mother’s best friends were Oneida) was Little Buffalo.

It was also at that moment I banned my husband from eating buffalo burgers.

During our week in Yellowstone my view of bison went from mythical to personal as I got to know them better. In Lamar Valley we sat for hours, observing small herds dotting the plateau near and far. Mothers with frisky calves, trotting and frolicking. A couple of young males butting heads, one alpha leading his herd across the river (which reached only to their knees).  Small family groups, sitting or sprawled out in the grass under an afternoon sun. When grazing, they had an undeniably bovine placidity, chewing, kicking up insects for the cowbirds that hopped near their feet and sat on their backs.  At other times they were completely undignified, especially when taking their dust baths: it was funny to see these majestic animals belly-up in the dirt with legs flailing like grass-happy dogs.

Buffalo warning in Yellowstone National ParkTheir cattle-like appearance lulls people into forgetting that these are wild animals, and the parks department includes warnings in their literature to keep your distance. The males weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can run over 30 mph. Both genders have horns. More people die from bison goring than bear attacks, because people think these quietly ambling animals are harmless. I heard a story of someone putting their child on a bison’s back for a photo.

The only hint at aggression we saw was a male defending his chosen mate. He never left her side, quietly chuffing sweet nothings into her ear, sniffing her, nibbling her side. But if another male came too close, he lowered his head and grumphed at them. I was glad the others gave way. Michael Lanza (in Before They’re Gone) has compared a charging bison to a grand piano sprouting horns and moving at the speed of a race-horse. I did not want to see two grand pianos collide.

We got more up-close and personal when we ran into a bison jam; cars were stopped in the middle of the road not because people were stopping to watch wildlife, but because a herd was crossing the road, with some of the animals simply standing in the midst of traffic. A few got within ten feet of us, close enough that we could see the patchiness of their fall coats and hear their munching as they pulled up grass by the roadside.  

Our most intimate experience of bison was tactile. In a couple of visitor centers, we could bury our fingers in the thick, wiry fur of preserved hides, feel the heft of their horns, and examine their vertebrae. We learned that the hump on their shoulders is actually specialized musculature designed to keep bison moving in deep snow: they swing their heads back and forth like a plow, and the vertebrae in this area are elongated to support these massive muscles.

Though the animals’ continued existence is history's best tribute to Hornaday, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a mountain in Yellowstone named for him. I could not leave without seeing it. Before departing the lodge on the morning of our quest, we asked a ranger for help locating the mountain. We had a map that showed the general spot, but I wondered if they could be any more specific. The ranger had not heard of Mt. Hornaday, but she wanted to be helpful, so she looked it up in a reference book and sure enough there it was with a short bio of the man. I filled her in on the rest of the story and why I wanted to see this mountain so badly. Because I had told her something she didn’t know about the park, she awarded me a “Junior Park Ranger” sticker, which is one of my favorite souvenirs.

Junior Park Ranger Badge, Yellowstone National ParkMy husband used his GPS to locate the mountain but it wasn’t really visible from the road, so we took an unplanned hike up Pebble Creek Trail to reach a high enough elevation to see the 10,000-foot peak named for my new hero. The trail was more than I had bargained for, and we were low on water. I wanted to give up, but Alex urged me on and only a couple of miles later we reached a clearing that gave us the perfect of view of the adjacent summit we were after!

Since then, I have kept up with bison news and goings-on in the West. One of the most exciting recent stories has been the reintroduction of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The Yellowstone bison are among the last genetically pure, wild bison (others have been interbred with cattle on ranches). They are the direct descendants of the last few survivors of the genocide, and about 60 of them have now been returned to the prairies of Montana, under the care of their original Plains cohabitants. Since the move, five new calves have been born to the herd, their little hooves aerating the tall-grass prairies that have not felt their tread in over a century.