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Guns in the West
Aging Cowboys
Edith Kermit Roosevelt
Horses and Cattle Arrive in the West
The West
Theodore Roosevelt's Buckskin Suit
Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt's Ranch
William Sewall
Women in Theodore Roosevelt's West
Saving Yellowstone, Part 2
Theodore Roosevelt: Mammoth Hunter


Saving Yellowstone, Part 2 »

SAVING YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, PART 1

Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872 by a congressional act signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, making the region in northwest Wyoming (with parts lapping into Montana and Idaho) into the world's first national park. However, the law creating it carried a serious flaw-it failed to authorize punishment for those who violated park rules. Roosevelt's friend, conservation ally, and mentor, George Bird Grinnell, explained, "As it is now, the Park is placed under the care of the Secretary [of the Interior], and he is authorized to make rules and regulations for its government; but as no penalties are provided, there is no way in which such regulations when made can be properly enforced. . . . All that now can be done is to turn the offender out of the Park, and thus give him an opportunity of returning and renewing his malicious acts."[1] Souvenir hunters carved up rock formations, loggers cut trees, and market hunters slaughtered park wildlife. map of Yellowstone

This situation was especially threatening for the park's bison. Bison heads were selling for up to $500 apiece, far exceeding the two or three dollars that a buffalo robe usually fetched during the heyday of bison hunting.[2] The scarcer bison became, the more valuable they were to market hunters.

The Bison Connection

The largest land mammal in North America-a large bull may weigh a ton-the bison, or American buffalo, had roamed the West in herds numbering in the millions early in the 19th century. By the early 1880s, uncontrolled commercial hunting for hides and meat had nearly wiped out the animals, as outlined in The Cowboy Candidate: Theodore Roosevelt's Adventures in the American West. One measure of the bison's numbers, and of the slaughter that took place in the West, was the increasing haul of bone collectors, who in 1872 shipped 1,135,200 pounds of bison bones on the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe line; in 1873 they shipped 2,743,100 pounds, and in 1874, 6,914,950.[3] Along the Northern Pacific railroad, collectors gleaned bones for a hundred miles either side of the track; in 1885 a single firm shipped 200 tons from Miles City, in eastern Montana Territory.[4] Fertilizer companies in Michigan paid $18 a ton for crushed bones, $12 a ton for uncrushed.

Slaughtering the Bison

After the bison had been wiped out in the southern and central parts of its range, the animal made its last stand in Montana and North Dakota. When the North Pacific Railroad arrived there in 1883, it brought market hunters into the area in droves, and they killed off bison wherever they found them. Indians, too, contributed to the species destruction. The agent of the Lakota (Sioux) reservation in North Dakota (then Dakota Territory) allowed the Indians in his charge to go off the reservation for one last hunt mid 1883. The Indians, and some white hunters, swooped down on a herd of about 10,000 bison and killed all but about 1,000. The agent said the hunt benefited the Indians, but at least one Badlands observer disagreed, calling the foray, "A blood-lustful debauch of two days, masquerading as a hunt in the name of necessity. . . . in which 600 [the count was probably 1,000] mounted Sioux Indian warriors were deliberately encouraged to destroy their own sustenance, to draw their own teeth, that they might easier be held to their reservations."[5] He said the hunt was, "Particularly reprehensible not only because of its more than questionable purpose, to starve the Indians into submission, but because none knew better than the Government that it was a slaughter of the sole surviving herd of the species in America."[6] bison in snow

As discussed in The Cowboy Candidate, little effort was made to save the bison from market hunters. President Grant killed a congressional bill designed to give the animals federal protection, and various state laws were poorly enforced. William T. Hornaday, a leading naturalist and bison advocate in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lamented the blatant neglect that pushed the bison toward extinction: "The business-like, wholesale slaughter, wherein one hunter would openly kill five thousand buffaloes and market perhaps two thousand hides, could easily have been stopped forever. Buffalo hides could not have been dealt in clandestinely, for many reasons, and had there been no sale for ill-gotten spoils the still-hunter would have gathered no spoils to sell."[7] The means for saving the bison were readily available; the will simply was not there.

The frontier mentality made heroes of men who slaughtered vast numbers of wildlife, including deer, pronghorn, and wild sheep. One of Theodore Roosevelt's ranchland friends, A.T. Packard-editor of the Medora, Dakota Territory, Bad Lands Cow Boy newspaper-observed that many of his fellow editors in the mid 1880s, seeing the imminent extinction of the bison, thought that deer would be next and were calling for tight restrictions on hunting seasons. Packard responded, "We are no advocate of the wholesale slaughter of venison, but we will never see the deer exterminated from this country, and as the few that are killed are used for food and not for the sole pleasure of killing, we even think the game law should be extended another month instead of being decreased."[8] In the same issue, he reported that one famed local hunter, Vic Smith, "came in Sunday, and reports killing eighty-nine deer and antelope. Sixty-nine of them he killed in five days."

Smith was one of the most persistent market hunters and was famed for killing 107 bison at a single stand. He also had earned a reputation for murdering a man who had turned him in to a federal marshal for illegally selling whiskey to reservation Indians and was said, when a young man, to have "killed an Indian at Square Butte for no reason than to say he had killed one."[9] He was in on the slaughter of bison by the Lakota. His hunting skills were admired. Packard once noted that he showed up in Medora one October day with "another lot of antelope, coyotes and mountain deer" and added favorably, "Vic never comes home empty-handed."[10]

Legitimizing such slaughter by labeling it the killing of a few animals for food essentially endorsed a notion that Hornaday saw as the cause behind the rapid decline of wildlife in the 19th century: "The idea of the frontiersman (the average, at least) has always been to kill as much game as possible before some other fellow gets a chance at it, and before it is all killed off!"[11] The bison slaughter ranked high as a significant example. The robe trade at St. Paul, Minnesota had fallen from 10,000 hides in 1883 to a total of only four in 1884, because the animals were verging toward extinction.[12] Even so, when someone reported a herd of buffalo about 25 miles southwest of Medora in late October, several local hunters hurried after them.[13] In 1886, a hunter found five adults and two calves about 75 miles west of Grand Rapids; he killed a large bull and captured a calf alive.[14] On 11 September 1888, a hunter killed a solitary bull 3 miles from the town of Oakes in Dickey County. By 1889, residents knew of three bison that survived in unsettled country between Dickey County and the Missouri River-the last bison east of the Missouri in that part of Dakota Territory.[15]

Dwindling Bison

By 1886, uncontrolled hunting had reduced bison to a few groups of stragglers scattered widely across the plains. In 1889 Hornaday estimated that only about 85 bison survived in the United States outside of Yellowstone National Park, which was home to an estimated 200.[16] Various people held another 256 in captivity. Hornaday: "Of the eighty-five head still existing in a wild state it may safely be predicted that not even one will remain alive five years hence. A buffalo is now so great a prize, and by the ignorant it is considered so great an honor (?) to kill one, that extraordinary exertions will be made to find and shoot down without mercy the 'last buffalo.'"

Even the scientific and conservation community seemed in league against bison survival. In 1886 the Smithsonian Institute sent an expedition to Montana to shoot 20 to 30 bison of various ages to ensure that its collection included more than the half dozen ragged specimens it then held.[17] Two trips were required, one in spring and one in autumn.[18] In one region where they hunted and killed two cows, the expedition members found no further sign of bison for 15 miles in three directions.[19] The party succeeded in killing an 11-year-old bull that delighted them because, as one participant reported, "owing to the rapidity with which the large buffaloes are being found and killed off these days, I had not hoped to capture a really old individual."[20] That participant was Hornaday himself.

Theodore Roosevelt and his Allies

Yellowstone bison offered the only hope for survival of the species. When bison protection became a top priority for the Boone and Crockett Club, a big-game advocacy group founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, it was only natural that protection of Yellowstone also became a priority.

George Bird Grinnell was among Roosevelt's strongest conservation allies and a leading club member. A noted conservationist of the late 1800s and early 1900s, he served as editor of the influential magazine Forest and Stream and founded the National Audubon Society. george grinnell He also was a long-time advocate of bison protection, especially of the park animals. His first experience with Yellowstone came in 1875, when he accompanied an expedition there under Colonel William Ludlow. Grinnell's subsequent report on the area's wildlife was well received and signaled the dangers that park wildlife faced. In the cover letter that accompanied his report to Ludlow, he wrote, "It may not be out of place here to call your attention to the terrible destruction of large game, for the hides alone, which is constantly going on in those portions of Montana and Wyoming through which we passed. Buffalo, elk, mule-deer, and antelope are being slaughtered by thousands each year, without regard to age or sex, and at all seasons. . . . Females of all these species are as eagerly pursued in the spring, when just about to bring forth their young, as at any other time."[21]

The early history of Yellowstone National Park is a chronicle of wildlife slaughter. Grinnell: "It is estimated that during the winter of 1874-'75 not less than 3,000 elk were killed for their hides alone in the valley of the Yellowstone, between the mouth of Trail Creek and the Hot Springs. If this be true, what must have been the number for both Territories? Buffalo and mule-deer suffer even more severely than elk, and antelope nearly as much. It is certain that, unless in some way the destruction of these animals can be checked, the large game still so abundant in some localities will ere long be exterminated."[22]

In 1880, the park superintendent estimated that about 600 bison roamed the park. In 1885, the number was about 200.[24] Superintendent D. W. Wear wrote in his annual report to the secretary of the Interior, "I would most earnestly call your attention to the entire inadequacy of the laws to provide punishment for violations of the regulations for the protection of the Park."[25]

The following year the park came under military control, putting an army officer in charge with the title acting superintendent.[26] The army set up a series of guard stations, extending from near the north boundary in an irregular line to the south boundary. Each station was garrisoned by a sergeant and two or three privates who lived in a log hut stocked with supplies in early October, to last until mid June. During winter the men from each station strapped on snowshoes and patrolled assigned sections of the park in search of poachers. The stations also offered shelter and supplies to scouts and patrols sent out from the fort.

Conservationists such as John Muir, who helped found the Sierra Club in 1892, were pleased with the military takeover, but many local residents saw it as federal intrusion into their private lives. Locals opposed the army's efforts to keep people from grazing livestock in the park and from cutting park trees for building material and firewood.[28] On this last point the Department of the Interior tried to compromise, letting residents from surrounding towns remove deadwood under army permits limiting where and how much wood could be carried out. Meanwhile, poaching continued. In 1886, the acting superintendent, Captain Moses Harris of the First Cavalry, complained that hunters were setting forest fires to drive wildlife out of the park so they could shoot it.[29] The following year Harris estimated that only an estimated 100 Yellowstone bison survived.[30]


Saving Yellowstone, Part 2 »


SOURCES

1. George Bird Grinnell. "Our National Parks." Forest and Stream: December 3, 1891, Vol. XXXVII No. 20, p. [1?].
2. Michael Punke, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2007), p. 139.
3. Hornaday, Extermination of the American Bison, pp. 445-446.
4. Hornaday, Extermination of the American Bison, pp. 445-446.
5. Lang, Ranching With Roosevelt, pp. 24-25.
6. Lang, Ranching With Roosevelt, p. 25; on the other side of the equation, one former buffalo hunter said that ". . . any one of the families killed and homes destroyed by the Indians would have been worth more to Texas and to civilization than all the millions of buffalo that ever roamed from the Pecos River on the south to the Platte River on the north." Quoted in Michael Punke, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2007), pp. 90-91.
7. Hornaday, Extermination of the American Bison, pp. 520-521.
8. Bad Lands Cow Boy 22 December 1884
9. Interview of Charles Armstrong of Grassy Butte, North Dakota, by L.F. Crawford, 4-6 August 1929, Putnam papers Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
10. Bad Lands Cow Boy, 30 October 1884; Michael Punke, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2007), pp. 66 and 125.
11. William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), p. 520.
12. Bad Lands Cow Boy, 13 November 1884
13. Bad Lands Cow Boy, 30 October 1884
14. William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), p. 522.
15. William T. Hornaday,The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), p. 522.
16. William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), p. 525.
17. William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), p. 529.
18. William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), p.545.
19. William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), p. 539.
20. William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), p. 542.
21. Quoted in Michael Punke, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2007), p. 102.
22.Albert Kenrick Fisher, "In Memoriam: George Bird Grinnell," The Auk Vol. 56 (January 1939): 4-5.
23. P.W. Norris, Annual Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880), p. 38.
24. D. W. Wear, Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1885), p. 3.
25. D. W. Wear, Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1885), p. 5.
26.Lieutenant Elmer Lindsey. "A Winter Trip Through the Yellowstone Park." Harper's Weekly (29 January 1898): 106-110.
27. Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 99-101.
28. Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 101-104.
29. Moses Harris, Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1886), p. 7.
30. Moses Harris, Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1886), p. 13.