Hail Our New National Mammal

Just recently, President Obama signed a law making the bison our country’s first national mammal. The buffalo (I never called them “bison”) isn’t in competition with the bald eagle because the eagle already has national animal wrapped up.

I wholeheartedly agree with this choice because for as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with buffalo. I have always consider them to be the most magnificent wild creature in North America and one which certainly played a much bigger role in our country’s history than the bald eagle.

I developed my love for buffalo while observing them on repeated visits to Yellowstone National Park on fly-fishing trips. I would spend hours and hours fishing rivers like the Firehole, the Yellowstone, and the Madison where I would watch small herds of buffalo feeding next to the stream. They filled their bellies while I filled the boring gaps prevalent when trying to entice a trout into striking my fly (old joke; “That’s why it they call it fishing and not catching”) by watching them.

I have also spent a lot of time photographing buffalo while they fed in the pastures on ranches where they were being raised for their meat. And then there was the time, I actually “hunted” buffalo near the Grand Canyon in Arizona (something I have mixed feelings about, but more on that later).

With their large shaggy heads, massive shoulders, and a body weight that can exceed a ton, buffalo are incredibly powerful beasts. While a docile animal 99% of the time, I have seen them suddenly turn on one another and have heard of them taking out horses, fences, automobiles, and the occasional park visitor https://youtu.be/684ZiNuSrK8 .

Three old bulls I spent a lot of time photographing
Three old bulls I spent a lot of time photographing

Great Book on Buffalo

Recently, a friend of mine sent me a book titled American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella. Now, although, I worked for years in the field of conservation (put up barriers to keep people from screwing with the environment) and preservation (arrest people who ignore the barriers and screw up the environment) I have found I am bored to death by most books that discuss any subject that fits into the category of “natural history.” I find this genera of books to contain nothing but a regurgitation of one scientific or historic observation after the other while being totally devoid of imaginative or interesting writing.  American Buffalo, however, turned out to be an exception.

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Not that the author didn’t include a lot of information about the history of the buffalo, its importance in the settlement of the west, and its eventual near extinction—he did a very good job of this. But more so,  it was because it was so obvious he had spent countless hours of time looking up every piece of trivia about the animals he is as completely enamored with as I am.

I also enjoyed the fact that much of this book was an account of his trip to the Alaskan wilderness where he hunted buffalo. Because Rinella interwove the story of his own hunt with descriptions of the legendary hunts of Indians, the buffalo hunters who killed for hides and tongues, those emigrants who sought buffalo chips (scat) in lieu of firewood, and the scavengers who collected the buffalo’s bones for use in the making of fertilizer and bone china, the story became so much more than just another hunting tale.

To me, it was also appealing that Rinella wrote in a style some may call rambling (letting his thoughts stray to offbeat subjects). For me, his circuitous style kept things interesting and provided quirky insights that made his book more than just a predictable “natural history.”

 

Hunting Buffalo

As I alluded to earlier, my most memorable experience with a buffalo was in actually getting to hunt a buffalo at the Raymond Wildlife Area located just outside the northern boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. I hesitate to mention it because I can see how some people might consider this one episode in my life to be a blemish on my otherwise spotless record as a top-notch human being. I have to think a bit more about how to explain my actions, so again, more on this in a minute.

Since this hunting experience was close to fifty years ago, I decided to get some background on the management of this herd and to see how this “hunt” has changed over time. What I found were three things that surprised me. First the buffalo were never native to this area (North of the Grand Canyon) of Arizona, but were introduced in the 1920s by a rancher called Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones. Jones attempted to crossbreed bison and cattle to produce an animal (a “cattalo” or “beefalo”) that produced more meat than a cow, but was less likely to tear down fences and beat up cowboys. But when things didn’t work out for Buffalo Jones, the Arizona Fish and Game Department, for some unrecorded reason, purchased the herd. From then on, the buffalo have simply been a big pain in their ass.

Seems the herd, with no natural predators soon grew too large and animals needed to be removed every year to keep the herd healthy and ensure they didn’t damage the range that provided them and other wildlife with food. Reducing the herd by up to 100 animals a year could have been done using Fish and Game staff, but the choice was made to allow local hunters to apply for permits and then be allowed to take one buffalo. This traditional “hunt” is continued today with mixed results where hunters often fail to successfully remove the target number of animals. Nevertheless, in an attempt to let hunters have the rare opportunity to hunt for buffalo, permits (today at a cost of $1,000 for residents and $5,415 for non-residents) are issued for both spring and fall hunts each year.

In 1969, something spurred my dad to apply for one of these buffalo hunt permits. He called me while I was serving in the Navy to find out if I would like to come home and get in on this brainchild of his. In order to sweeten the pot, he told me that we could also hunt for wild turkey near the Grand Canyon in the days before the buffalo hunt. He said the odds of getting drawn for a permit were a million to one, but “what the hell.” I told him to go ahead and put me in for a permit and forgot all about it.

Then one day, he called to say his friend and I had been drawn (he somehow managed to make it sound like his lack of luck in the drawing meant I owed him something) for buffalo hunt permits. My permit was number 99 and his friends was 100. Little did I know how important these two numbers would later become.

In October, I drove for a day and one half to Phoenix (there are few oceans near Phoenix) where I met him and his friend, Harold. We continued on to what is known as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and spent the next few days hunting turkey. I always enjoyed turkey hunting and was usually successful.  This trip was no exception and both my dad and I took turkeys.  Only Harold came up short.

Turkey hunt 2

When it was time for the buffalo hunt, we drove out to the Raymond Ranch area expecting to head out into the countryside to “hunt” for what would at least be something wilder than a Hereford cow. Since we had done literally nothing to scope out this hunt ahead of time, we really had no expectation of what we were getting into.

Turns out, the Fish and Game controlled the entire hunt from start to finish. They had a huge fenced corral about the size of 2 football fields on one end with a large pen that contained 100 (no make that 99) buffalo on the other end.

The way the hunt worked with the Fish and Game officers on horseback pushing a group of three buffalo from the pens into the corral. According to the order of their permit number, hunters would enter the corral and each take a turn shooting a buffalo. You were to shoot them “right in the ear” and if you missed or wounded the buffalo, everything stopped and a Fish and Game officer shot the buffalo for you (unfortunately, Fish and Game ended up shooting most of the animals).

When I found this out, I said to my dad. “Holy Shit, this is nuts!” He said that according to what he had heard, earlier hunts had been done in these pens, but that now you were allowed to hunt them out in the open spaces. A history of this event states that shooting buffalo in pens was indeed changed to open range hunting because the public’s “sociological prospective” (no one liked shooting fish in a barrel) had shifted. They decided to make the hunt involve a “fair chase.” Apparently, my dad was a year early on exactly when this new plan would be initiated.

I was debating what I was going to do when a Fish and Game officer came up to us and said that because they were only able to get 99 buffalo rounded up for the hunt, the person with the number 100 permit would be taken out on the range to locate one.

I would have killed to have been the 100th person drawn, but numbers were numbers and Harold was the lucky one who would actually get to hunt. My dad offered to stay with me, but I could see the tear in his eye and said, “No, you go with Harold.” He was gone before I got the words “with Harold” out.

 

Buffalo 6

I sat there for the rest of day watching a circus of shooting mishaps and dying buffalo. until it was my turn to hunt (I now call it “to harvest”) my buffalo. All I can say is I took my one shot and that ended it cleanly. The final embarrassment was when they drove a tow truck up to the animal and hooked up the buffalo by its feet and hauled it away to an open shed where workers skinned and quartered the animal (now that I think about it, what else would you do when you have such a huge animal to handle in rather warm weather).

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Soon my dad and Harold showed up and were all smiles—they had had a great time on their buffalo hunt. I bit my lip and smiled with them. We finished the day by picking up one-quarter of the buffalo meat (the rest was donated locally), head, and hide that were ours to take. I put the experience down as “one more thing I wish I hadn’t done in my life” and from then on my dad and I only talked about how great the turkey hunting was on our buffalo trip.

Now, I don’t argue with people about the pros or cons of hunting. I was raised in this culture and have no regret that I loved every minute of every hunt. I will say, however, that the sport of hunting has slowly changed over time. The biggest change is that the percentage of hunters who are total idiots has greatly increased (kind of like Congress). What hunting was—tradition, skill, fair chase—is not what hunting is today. So pardon me—think what you want about hunting, but I’ll just sit in the shade with my fond memories.

I rambled on for so long I forgot what the point of this blog was (making me officially a GEEZER). I guess it was that yes, President Obama may have made a lot of mistakes (although he certainly can’t compete with George W.), but he got the buffalo thing right.

THE BUFFALO WAS A GOOD CHOICE
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