Let the Buffalo Roam

This entry is a part of a series. To clearly understand the material below in context,
you may wish to begin at the beginning with the introduction to the series.

In the small northern Michigan town where I grew up in the 1950s, a “visit to the zoo” meant a trip to look at animals behind bars.

zoo cagesNah, not animals like that behind bars. Our zoo couldn’t afford big cats. They mostly had small cages with small animals like foxes or weasels. But like the bigger animals in the bigger barred cages in the bigger zoos “downstate,” our small animals would just pace back and forth on the concrete floors of the small cages and take naps. We did have one big animal, though. A buffalo. He didn’t have a cage with bars. He had an “enclosure” with part wood fence, part chain link fence so visitors could see him.

He didn’t pace on concrete either. He had actual bare dirt, packed hard, to pace on. No grass. Just hard mud and dust, except in rainy season. In the middle of the enclosure was a structure that allowed a big rope to hang down in front of the buffalo with a big hunk of wood tied to it. I suppose it was intended as kind of a buffalo punching bag. The idea was that he would run up and butt it when bored. I seldom saw him butt it. I assume that after the first couple of weeks with that being the only entertainment, that was boring too. I do remember one time there was quite a scare among zoo visitors when he decided to make his own fun, and dashed headlong into the chainlink fence, almost breaking through and trampling onlookers. I doubt he wanted to harm anyone…I assume he just saw that out where they were there was actual grass to munch on, rather than the hay the zoo keepers no doubt tossed in for him to eat.

I can’t remember the first time I saw a new-fangled zoo where they had actual “natural habitats” for all the animals. It would have been in the early 1960s, perhaps at Busch Gardens in Florida. But I remember being impressed with how much more inviting that was, both for the animals themselves and for the visitors watching them. I’m quite sure at the time I thought that this was an amazing, modern innovation, akin to the astronaut program of the 1960s.

I was wrong. The first “modern” zoo that was built very specifically to attempt to incorporate much more natural habitats instead of just concrete-floor, bare, barred cages was the Bronx Zoo in New York City—which opened in 1899. And that brings us back to the Boone and Crockett club, and its resident dynamo, Madison Grant.

As mentioned in the previous entry in this blog series, the 29-year-old Grant got busy with aggressive projects shortly after walking in the door for the first time at the B&C in 1893. The first project was a three year blitz of lobbying and advertising and schmoozing to force through a new hunting law for the state of New York. By 1897 that was accomplished. But Madison Grant never had just one project going. He was an early master of multi-tasking. Luckily, his own passions matched well those of the other B&C members, and he found fertile ground for his ideas, and lots of assistance in schmoozing and lobbying from them. One of these ideas, shared by a number of other B&Cers, was to create a Zoological Society for New York City that would undertake to create the best zoo in the world.

As Madison Grant hunted the ever-dwindling mammals of North America in the 1890s, he began to dream of creating a zoological park in which the continent’s endangered species could be preserved “in surroundings as nearly as possible similar to those of their native habitat.” “No civilized nation,” he stated, “should allow its wild animals to be exterminated without at least making an attempt to preserve living representatives of all species that can be kept alive in confinement.”

But Grant had little desire to create an Old World–style game preserve encompassing thousands of acres of fenced-in land on a nobleman’s estate, where species were indeed protected from poachers but where the average citizen could not see the creatures. Grant wanted to locate his zoo in the midst of the nation’s metropolis, New York City, for it was his belief that an American game sanctuary should provide access to the urban public, who would thereby become educated about— and be alerted to the beleaguered status of—their country’s native fauna.

On the other hand, Grant had no interest in building a typical nineteenth-century urban zoological garden. The leading European zoos of the time (e.g., London, Paris, and Antwerp) and their North American emulators (e.g., Philadelphia) measured only about thirty acres in size. Grant was disgusted by these cramped institutions where all the species, irrespective of their particular needs or habits, were locked up like dangerous prisoners in bare, solitary cells of uniform size and shape, lined with tile or cement and fronted with thick iron bars.

Grant was determined to create a zoo “entirely divergent” from the established institutions. He envisioned a zoological park about three hundred acres in size (which would make it five times the size of the largest zoo in Europe, the sixty-three-acre Berlin zoological garden). Rather than solitary confinement, the animals would live in groups as in the wild; and instead of cramped, sterile enclosures, they would roam in large, realistic habitats. In this manner, they would receive stimulation from interacting with other creatures and with their environment, and visitors would be able to view and study these healthy animals in beautiful, natural settings.  [from: Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. University Press of New England, 2009. Kindle Edition. This book is the source of much of the information about Madison Grant in this blog series. I will just use the name of the author, Spiro, in subsequent citations in this entry.]

His ideas were resisted by many “experts” of the time, who thought they knew what the public wanted. It was so much easier for a visitor if animals were confined in small cages, shoved up close to viewers so they could easily see details of fur and feather. Why, if you allowed animals to move around in a “habitat,” they might choose to take a nap on a tree limb where zoo visitors couldn’t inspect them every moment of the day!

But there were others who did “catch the vision” and realized how nice it would be for people crammed in busy, dirty, noisy, crime-ridden cities to be able to wander out into an actual little bit of nature and breathe fresh air and soak in the peace once in a while.

It was touch and go for a bit as the B&Cers tried to push through support of the local government for their Zoological ideas. The entrenched corrupt politics and politicians in New York City of the time weren’t interested in goody-two-shoes ideas like zoos and improved schools, and resisted the efforts at every turn. But a fortuitous situation developed in 1894 that gave them the window of opportunity they needed. A strong “progressive reform” movement swept into office a new mayor, William Strong, and new city administration (including B&C founder Theodore Roosevelt as Police Commissioner) that year.

For two years, Mayor Strong and his appointees were able to push through reforms in public health, civil service, increased school expenditures…and a bill giving approval for the New York Zoological Society and its Bronx Zoo plans. The bill passed the legislature and was signed by the mayor in April 1895. Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Madison Grant:“I congratulate you with all my heart upon your success with the Zoo bill,” he wrote to Grant. “Really, you have done more than I hoped. I always count myself lucky if I get one out of three or four measures through.”

A year later, in 1896, “Tammany Hall” (the corrupt political “machine” that had a grip on NY politics for most of the time from the early 1800s through the mid-20th century) came roaring back with its bag of dirty tricks, and threw out Mayor Strong and his new administration. But by then the Zoological Society was chugging along with its zoo plans, and the new Bronx Zoo, biggest metropolitan zoo in the world to this day, opened in 1899. Madison Grant was active in the daily administration of the zoo…along with all his many other projects…almost up to his death in 1937.


The B&C had been having considerable influence behind the scenes since the early 1890s. For instance, they quietly shoved a “Forest Reservation Act” through the US congress in 1891 that basically established what are now our “national forests.” It was tacked as a few lines onto a Civil Service bill, and most congressmen, who may not have been in favor of the federal government creating such reserves, didn’t even notice it until it was too late to rescind it.

And in 1901, the B&C mostly became unstoppable…when their founder Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States. Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior under JFK and LBJ, wrote, “When Theodore Roosevelt became President, the Boone and Crockett wildlife creed … became national policy.” [The Quiet Crisis, Udall, 1963, p. 161]

In the coming years Madison Grant and his associates would lobby, advertise, and schmooze their way to the creation of a variety of national parks, national wildlife reserves, a new style of wildlife management (that included recognizing the importance of the value of natural predators such as wolves in keeping down population explosions of prey animals such as deer and antelope), and much more. One example—the saving of the buffalo.

You’ll note the prominence of the buffalo on the Bronx Zoo program above—the buffalo head on the front, the photo of the zoo’s small buffalo herd on the back. That small herd would play a major part in bringing back the bison from the brink of extinction.

Grant and other B&C members had been planning to create wildlife refuges for such endangered species in the newly-created national forests and other areas. They had at first hoped to push through a bill for a whole package of refuges, but encountered more resistance than they had anticipated from residents and legistlators in the areas where they hoped to put refuges. So they backed off and decided to just lobby for one refuge at a time, hammering away at it until they got what they wanted, then going on to the next refuge.

Given that this promised to be an enormously lengthy undertaking, it was chillingly clear to Grant that the first refuge would have to be devoted specifically to the American bison, which in 1903 was in imminent danger of extinction. The astounding fact was that within Grant’s lifetime the bison had been America’s most abundant big-game animal: at one time at least thirty million bison had roamed the North American continent. Colonel Richard Dodge, a member of the Boone and Crockett Club, remembered the time he was patrolling the Arkansas River in 1871 and encountered a single bison herd that was fifty miles long and twenty-five miles wide, and contained at least four million head. George Bird Grinnell, who had hunted his share of bison during the 1870s, sadly remembered that “it was believed that the buffalo never could be exterminated.” [Spiro]

But the transcontinental railroad, which became available in the 1860s, spelled the demise of the bison. Huge amounts of meat were needed to feed the crews laying the rails, and buffalo meat was plentiful nearby. The completed tracks split herds off from their regular migratory routes. Sportsmen found out they could book a trip on a train that would allow them to sit in their railroad car and pick off buffalo out their window!

1871 train hunt

(A conductor on the Santa Fe Railroad remarked that one could walk for a hundred miles along the railroad’s right-of-way without stepping off the carcasses of dead bison.)


And finally, the railroads made possible the shipment of unspoiled bison products to the meat markets of the East. After the Civil War, market hunters headed out from the rail centers of Leavenworth, Cheyenne, and Dodge City by the thousands and made fortunes by stripping the hides from the slaughtered bison (which sold as robes for $1.25)… [as you can see in this photo from the period, of about 40,000 hides…]


… and cutting out the tongues (which were considered a delicacy and fetched twenty-five cents apiece). The remainders of the half-ton carcasses were left to rot on the plains. [Spiro]

In other cases, market hunters did “harvest” some of the buffalo’s bones…for fertilizer. Such as this stack of skulls from that time period, piled outside a fertilizer plant.

buffalo fertilzer

And I suppose there was quite a market for taxidermied bison heads to adorn the dens of the not-so-adventurous.


By the 1870s, the dreaded “market hunters” were killing 2 to 5 million bison a year. And then there was the “Indian Problem.” Plains Indians relied on the bison and its byproducts as their central source of food, clothing, shelter, and more.

General Philip Sheridan, an honorary member of the Boone and Crockett Club, stated that the extermination of the bison would do more to solve the Indian problem than the army had done in thirty years. [Spiro]

How many were left by the late 1880s?

In 1886, William T. Hornaday, then chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian (and a man who had himself hunted bison in his earlier days), traveled throughout the United Sates to inventory the surviving bison herds. According to his meticulous count, the tens of millions of bison that had existed before the Civil War had been reduced to a pathetic total of just 541 animals—of which only 85 still existed in the wild. Total extinction was now a distinct possibility, either at the hand of poachers or perhaps from accident, disease, or inbreeding. [Spiro]

A common rule of thumb, the “50/500 rule,” notes that a species needs at least 50 adult members to ensure short-term survival, and at least 500 to ensure long-term survival. The American Buffalo had just about reached that threshold.

So in 1905 Grant and some of his B&C buddies did what they always did best when facing a challenge to their personal interests…organize. This time they didn’t organize a club. They organized a “society”…the American Bison Society. And under its auspices, jointly with Grant’s New York Zoological Society, they made their plans to save the buffalo.

First order of business was to find a place to safely put the bison out west. Westerners typically griped when ANY limits to their hunting territory was suggested. So Grant and Friends needed to find a national forest already devoid of big game…because it had been over-hunted already. The Wichita Forest Reserve in Oklahoma filled the bill. Its territory had once been part of the natural range of the buffalo, it had great grazing potential, but no big game in residence at all. There were no politicians to lobby against a game refuge there since Oklahoma wasn’t a state yet. So it became the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Six bulls and nine cows were picked out from the small herd at the Bronx Zoo, and had a big send-off when put on a train at Grand Central Station, headed for Oklahoma.


Western newspapers gave extensive coverage to the bison transfer, and the passage of the train through the various communities en route was attended with considerable interest and excitement. Elwin Sanborn, who accompanied the animals for the Zoological Society, was moved by the number of Americans—including aged Indians—who “pined to see the bison” and who applauded as the train pulled into each town. The same scene was repeated at every stop as “throngs of men, women and children rushed up to get a glimpse of the famous animals.” They “crowded the cars on both sides … and the people only departed when they were forced out by the speed of the train.” [Spiro]

By the end of the first year, two calves were born, and the herd grew steadily after that.

Madison Grant could not help but remark on the somewhat amazing irony that “the restocking of the West with this typical American animal is being carried out largely with bison bred in the City of New York.” [Spiro]

The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge today is a crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system.


The tall native grasses, intermixed with brilliant wildflowers, have all come back and flourished, and a thousand descendants of that original herd of fifteen bison from the Bronx Zoo roam through them. A breathtaking variety of other animals have been successfully introduced (or migrated into the refuge on their own), including red wolves, gray foxes, wild turkeys, great horned owls, armadillos, bobcats, mountain lions, elk, and mink. Bald and golden eagles spend the winter in the refuge, and numerous ducks fill up its lakes during their spring and fall migrations. Cottonwoods lining the streams provide nesting sites for over two hundred species of birds, from white-breasted nuthatches to red-bellied woodpeckers. And all these animals are observed by the one million enchanted members of the Homo sapiens species who visit the refuge annually. [Spiro]

All of this in large part the results of the untiring efforts of the amazing Leading Pioneer of the Conservation Movement, Madison Grant.

But you know what’s odd? I googled Bronx Zoo, American Bison Society, and the Wichita Mountains refuge websites just now, and you have to dig really deeply to find even a fleeting mention of the name Madison Grant. You’d think his portrait would be on the wall of the HQ of all these places. You’d think there’d be plaques honoring him all across the American landscape. There aren’t. If I hadn’t stumbled on a detailed biography of Grant recently while doing research in topics unrelated to conservation, I would have never heard of him.

We’ll explore the reasons why in upcoming entries in this series. Starting with…

This Land Is Your Land
(except…NOT the Redwood Forests)

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One Response to Let the Buffalo Roam

  1. Cindy Kern says:

    Where do I find your next series?

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