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Mr. Hornaday’s War: The Return of the Buffalo

By Stefan Bechtel

Bison“In March, 1886, I received a severe shock, as if by a blow on the head with a well-placed mallet. I awoke, dazed and stunned, to a sudden realization of the fact that the buffalo hide-hunters of the United States had practically finished their work.” 

The writer was William Temple Hornaday, then a thirty-two-year-old taxidermist at the U.S. National Museum (later the Smithsonian). He’d been asked by his boss to put together a mounted display of the museum’s collection of Bison americanus, only to discover that “the people’s official museum was absolutely destitute of good bison specimens of any kind.” These great shambling creatures, with their magnificent prehistoric silhouettes, in their unimaginable numbers, symbolized the wildness and grandeur of America better than any other animal, perhaps even the bald eagle. Yet all Hornaday could find were a few dusty old skins and skeletons—sad, neglected relics, like discarded overcoats whose owners would never return.

Hornaday (1854-1937) quickly put together a census of all the bison in existence, writing to ranchers and private owners across the country. He discovered, in a second everlasting shock, that there were now less than 500 animals left in the world. Though the North American west was once darkened from horizon to horizon by buffalo herds estimated at more than thirty million—the largest herds of quadrupeds ever to walk the face of the earth—they were now teetering on the brink of extinction. And it was a real possibility: A single flock of passenger pigeons, which took five hours to fly overhead, had once been estimated at two billion birds. But by 1914, the species had flickered out forever.

Ironically, Hornaday had begun his career as a big game hunter, killing what he loved. (Not an uncommon practice in the nineteenth century). Now he mounted what later became known as “The Last Buffalo Hunt,” an expedition to the Montana territory to hunt down and bring back a small collection of specimens for mounting and display, to show Americans the glory of what they were about to lose. On the train headed west, ranchers all told him it was too late: All the wild buffalo were gone. But he managed to collect a few (including one frightened, live, motherless calf, whom he brought back). Later, his famous six-figure grouping of a protective bison bull with cows and calves at a watering hole was displayed on the main floor of the Smithsonian, greeting literally millions of visitors over the next sixty years.  

Mr. Hornaday's WarBut Hornaday, always quirky, difficult, and relentlessly persistent, did not stop there. He’d always been a man who loved a good fight (he even fought with his friends), so he went to war on behalf of the bison. As time went on, Hornaday became one of the noisiest, angriest, and most unstoppable conservationists of his day, second only to his friend and colleague Theodore Roosevelt. He was the founder of the National Zoo in Washington, and for thirty years served as director of the Bronx Zoo—sorry, he hated that name, insisting on “The New York Zoological Park”—a soapbox from which he lectured, cajoled, lambasted, and wheedled the American public, the Congress, and anybody else who would listen about the alarming state of the “the grandest quadruped [he had] ever seen.” He also initiated captive breeding programs at the zoo, to see if it were possible, first, and if so, to rebuild the perilously depleted population. With Roosevelt, Hornaday created the American Bison Society, dedicated to bison conservation. And he began fighting to create wild reserves in the west, to give the buffalo a place to roam should their numbers recover.

In his “spare time,” Hornaday also wrote a raft of books about zoology and conservation, fought lax game laws and gun manufacturers, and became a major player in the “Plume Wars” against feathered hat dealers, who were ravaging rookeries in the Everglades and other wild places. He was a vigilante for justice for the animals, a political agitator for the natural world, a man who never knew how to keep quiet in the face of what he considered to be a monstrous crime in progress. 

So it was that just after the first frost of 1907, a steam engine pulling two railroad cars carrying fifteen buffalo pulled into the railroad station in desolate Cache, Oklahoma, near the Wichita Mountains. A huge crowd had gathered, including Quannah Parker, the great Comanche warrior. Prophets of the plains people had foretold that the bison, who they believed had disappeared into a sacred mountain in the Wichitas, would one day return, like rivers of living water. Now, due to the passionate intensity and sheer doggedness of a diminutive white man from New York named William Temple Hornaday, the prophecy was being fulfilled. He had even helped create the Wichita National Forest and Game Reserve, sixty thousand acres of protected wildlands.

Today, due largely to this one man’s efforts, there are about 500,000 living American bison in the world.

It’s a shame Mr. Hornaday is not around to celebrate President Obama’s signing of the National Bison Legacy Act, making the American bison our new “national mammal,” and offering this great shaggy beast both honor and protection. He would have loved it!


About the Author 

Stefan BechtelStefan Bechtel is the author of ten books, including Mr. Hornaday’s War, Tornado Hunter, and Roar of the Heavens. A founding editor of Men’s Health magazine, his work has appeared in Esquire and the Washington Post, among other publications. He lives in Free Union, Virginia. Visit his website.