Tucked into the Absaroka range of eastern Yellowstone, bordered by grasslands guarded by a forest of pines, flows Pelican Creek, feeding Yellowstone Lake. As the creek approaches the lake, the sulfur-scented steam, arising from fissures around the lake, greets the stream. Skinning his kill of bison in this valley, in the winter of 1894, a poacher is unaware he has been spotted by a US Cavalry unit. After following snowshoe tracks, a US Cavalry scouting unit comes across six bison scalps. Continuing their tracking, they spy the poacher pursuing a herd of buffalo. After the kill, and as the man scalps the bison, they capture and arrest him. Fatefully, the scouting party, along with the poacher and the evidence, encounter a party of conservationists, one of whom is Emerson Hough, correspondent for Forest and Stream, who will report and publish this incident.
As the report repeated throughout the newspapers of the day, it aroused the public and initiated more serious attempts to save the bison. These attempts include three major efforts: numerical recovery, domestication and agribusiness practices, and the more recent ecological/sustainable approaches.
Prior to this incident, efforts to save the bison from extinction were mostly words of warning and legislation with no enforcement. Warnings of the coming demise came as early as 1820. Major Stephen Long, after seeing bison killed on an expedition, advocated for a law to protect the bison. In 1843 John J. Audubon gave his own prophecy of the coming extinction of the bison: “Like the Great Auk, before many years the buffalo will vanish. Surely this should not be permitted”. Others as well, added their voices, including George Catlin (American painter and traveler), Josiah Gregg (explorer and naturalist), and Joseph Leidy (a prominent scientist of the day). Despite the warnings, no action was taken either by the US Congress or the states during the 1850s, proving once again prophets have no honor in their own countries (cf John 4:44). Not until 1864 was any law even passed, and then it was by the Idaho Territory, not the US Congress, protecting the bison.
However, this law was limited, making it illegal to hunt between February 1 and April 1. In 1875 Nebraska passed a law as well, but by then not many bison were left to protect. The US Congress, in typical fashion, did not get on board until public opinion arising from Hough’s report provided the impetus. In 1894 the first US buffalo protection law, introduced by Rep. John F. Lacey of Iowa, was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland. The first serious steps toward recovery of the bison had begun.
After this, came a variety of laws to protect the bison and implement more intentional recovery efforts. Fortunately, individuals and families, farmers and ranchers, such as Charles Goodnight of Texas had collected bison calves to start small herds. All together these small herds amounted to less than 1000 bison remaining, and from these came the seed stock for starting and expanding new herds. One significant owner of a few bison was the New York Zoological Society which initiated the American Bison Society in 1905, and provided the bison for the creation of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge herd in southwestern Oklahoma. The US Fish and Wildlife Service created another important refuge for bison, the National Bison Range, which originated with bison from the Flathead Indian Reservation. A small herd of bison in Yellowstone survived.
All the early legislation and recovery efforts were laudable, for numerical recovery was absolutely essential to pull the bison back from the brink of extinction. But adverse consequences resulted despite the good intentions and actions. All throughout the recovery efforts from the early 1900s through the 1970s stood the question: How do you manage a species to bring it back from the brink of extinction? (continue to part 2)