Montana is known for tall mountains, deep valleys, and expansive forests, but most of the state is comprised of vast prairie landscapes that were once home to thundering herds of American bison. Scientists and historians believe that bison in North America numbered between 3 and 6 million prior to their government-ordered extermination in the late 1800s. Millions of bison were slaughtered simply for their tongues and hides.
By the 1880s, bison numbers had dropped from millions down to scant hundreds. Few people in the densely populated East viewed the coming extinction of the bison as an ecological and cultural loss. There were some, however, who recognized that the extermination of the bison would irreversibly close the book on a wild and rugged West. Naturalist William Temple Hornaday was one of the first people to call for the conservation of bison, along with his friend Theodore Roosevelt, who together founded the American Bison Society.
Hornaday was the chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institute. A staunch conservationist and an outspoken man, he was outraged that the slaughter of bison was allowed to occur. Hornaday decided to advocate for these symbols of American wildness, and knew that getting the people of Eastern cities to recognize the magnificence of the great American bison was key to preserving them.
Unfortunately, the Smithsonian lacked any quality bison specimens. Hornaday believed that rallying people behind his cause required a display that instilled the sense of awe that bison inspired in their living, hulking form. He was going to need to collect new specimens, which would not be easy. Commercial bison hunting had ceased, not from any regulation, but from sheer scarcity. Many doubted Hornaday would spot a single one. Fearing that it might already be too late, the audacious naturalist set out immediately for the Montana Territory in search of the scattered remnants of the once-massive herds, embarking on a mission of death to kill the animal he was so eager to save.
In spring 1886 Hornaday and his crew of cowboys, hunters, and soldiers led an exploratory expedition to the coulees of eastern Montana near Miles City. They spotted only a few ragged-looking bison shedding their winter coats—unsuitable for Hornaday’s ambitious display. The crew brought back to D.C. only one live, abandoned, calf they named Sandy and a large patchy-furred bull they had shot. They determined to return in the fall when the calves had matured and the adults had again grown their full coats.
Four months later Hornaday and his companions were back in the Montana Territory, anxious to accomplish their mission before the harsh prairie winter arrived. With a better idea of what kind of habitat the embattled bison hid away in, the hunting proved more successful. Though the ragged bands were few and far between, Hornaday’s crew were able to find and kill 44 bison, preparing the hides and skeletons to be transported back to Washington, D.C.
Hornaday prepared his bison specimens to create a beautiful display that stood in the Smithsonian Institute for 60 years and helped to catalyze the movement to save the North American Bison. Now that display resides in Fort Benton, Montana, at the Hornaday Smithsonian Buffalo and Western Art Gallery.
Within a few short years of the Hornaday expedition, all of the remaining wild bison were hunted to extinction by poachers in Montana and Colorado. Only captive bison remained to repopulate the West that was ultimately changed by their absence.
Today, it is easy to see bison with a quick trip to Yellowstone National Park or the National Bison Range. But restoring the icon of the American West has not been an easy or simple process. Many researchers, wildlife managers, and politicians have devoted their lives to bringing back the bison, and there is still much work to be done. However, none of it would have been possible without William Temple Hornaday’s foresight and willingness to take a chance.
Watching bison in the wild is an awesome and surreal experience, made more so by the knowledge that they came so perilously close to extinction. Every time I have the privilege of seeing wild bison, I am grateful once again that Hornaday was willing to go to any measure, even killing the animals he so praised, to preserve the iconic species and its legacy.
'Field Notes' is produced by the Montana Natural History Center, where two of the Hornaday bison, including Sandy, now reside.