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Restoring an American Icon - B&C Impact Series

By PJ DelHomme 

Bison are symbols of the American West, and market hunting nearly wiped them from the planet. The story of their near-extinction and then of their restoration thanks to members of the Boone and Crockett Club is the story of the first animal reintroduction in North America.

Left, a photograph from 1892 of a pile of bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer or charcoal. At right a bull grazing at the National Bison Range near Charlo, Montana.

When at ease, their undulating herds grazed over the landscape like a soft, warm breeze in April. When spooked, their hooves shook the earth of a thousand thunders. Prior to the 1700s, waves of bison roamed from Mexico to the Northwest Territories and from eastern Oregon nearly to the Atlantic coast of Georgia. And once the West was “opened” by railroads, they were sitting ducks—all 30 to 60 million of them. 

They were killed for their hides, tongues, meat, and for fun. Destroying the bison also destroyed the lifeblood of Native Americans. Market hunters could get three dollars for a buffalo skin in Kansas. A full buffalo-hide coat would fetch up to fifty dollars. Railcars made shipping the heavy hides back East easy. The scale of the slaughter was exponential thanks to new and ever-improving rifles. 

By the late 1800s, only a few small herds of bison remained in North America, and many of them were privately held. Herds in Yellowstone had dwindled to less than two dozen. Americans had heard stories of bison across the Great Plains, yet few had ever actually seen a live one. That would change when early Boone and Crockett Club member William T. Hornaday decided to make it his life’s work to insure that bison would not be lost forever. 

Hornaday’s Crusade 

William Temple Hornaday was a pioneer on numerous fronts, and his name would become synonymous with conservation. He campaigned against the destruction of wild game and sought protection for species on the brink of extinction. Hornaday was also a collector. While working as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian, Hornaday traveled to Montana in the spring of 1886 to collect bison specimens for the museum. He found nothing but the bleached bones of his quarry. Three months later he returned and collected his bison specimens. The irony of tracking down the last remaining bison just to kill them and put them in a museum wasn’t lost on Hornaday. In Mr. Hornaday’s War, Stefan Bechtel writes that, “In his autobiography, written forty-eight years after these events had faded into memory, Hornaday acknowledged his own misgivings over what the museum party was about to do—and begged the forgiveness of future generations for what could arguably be called a crime.” 

Group of bison collected and mounted by Hornaday, 1886-87. Exhibit case featured in the mammal exhibit in the South Hall of the United States National Museum, now known as the Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian.

That expedition to collect specimens had other consequences. Hornaday brought to Washington D.C. a bison calf, which he tied outside the National Museum. It died a few weeks later. He later skinned and stuffed it, adding it to the bison exhibit in the museum. Even though the calf’s visit to D.C. was short-lived, it gave Hornady an idea. He would work to preserve live animals and not just the dead ones inside a museum.  

Hornaday in 1886 with the bison calf, one of the animals brought back to D.C. from Montana. The calf sadly passed away soon after arrival and eventually joined the bison exhibit.

After becoming head of the National Zoo in Washington D.C. in 1889, Hornaday left that post for New York City where he would become the director of the Bronx Zoo for three decades. There, he placed a small herd of bison inside a 20-acre enclosure, and it became one of the most popular exhibits. 

As early as 1887, Hornaday had spoken with Boone and Crockett Club co-founder Theodore Roosevelt about restoring bison to some of their old haunts in the West. And yet, both men were so busy—Hornaday running the zoo and T.R. achieving his political goals—that the restoration idea never gained traction. That is until a young naturalist, who happened to be enamored with bison, began lecturing on the idea of restoring the herds.

Bison Returned   

Ernest Baynes presented a lecture on bison preservation and reservation in Boston in January 1905. In the audience was influential Boone and Crockett Club member T. Gilbert Pearson, who suggested Baynes bring his passion for bison and lecture to the New York Zoological Society, which managed the New York Zoological Park (a.k.a. Bronx Zoo). Baynes had written to President Roosevelt about restoring bison, and Roosevelt responded enthusiastically, which is why he accepted the invitation to be the first president of a new organization dedicated to restoring bison herds. It would be called the American Bison Society. 

Roosevelt, Hornaday, Baynes, Madison Grant, and a number of Boone and Crockett Club members created the American Bison Society (ABS) in December 1905. The 13 men and one woman who attended the first meeting all agreed to look for other suitable locations for bison restoration. As luck would have it, in February 1905, President Roosevelt established the nation’s first game reserve in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma. In 1907, the American Bison Society shipped 15 bison from the Bronx Zoo to the newly established refuge, making it the first animal reintroduction in North America. 

"William T. Hornaday (center, foreground) with American Bison Society at Rocking Stone Restaurant located within the Bronx Zoo. According to the sign in the background, proceeds from the restaurant were devoted to increasing the animal collections at the zoo. Circa 1906.

At the same time, some wealthy easterners were creating their personal fenced game preserves, which included bison. In his book, An American Crusade for Wildlife, author James B. Trefethen writes that Austin Corbin, the man who developed Coney Island, had a herd of nearly 100 purebred plains bison in Croydon, New Hampshire. The Bronx Zoo received some of these bison as well as animals from other private herds. In turn, the zoo would use this seed stock to re-establish populations across the West. 

Thanks to the cooperation between members of the Boone and Crockett Club, the American Bison Society, and the New York Zoological Society, bison restoration gained serious momentum. One major success for the ABS was the creation of the National Bison Range in northwest Montana in 1908—just 50 miles from the current headquarters of the Boone and Crockett Club. The New York Zoological Society held a public fundraising campaign and raised $10,000 to purchase breeding stock and would eventually place 34 bison on the reserve. In 1912, when Congress created Wind Cave National Game Preserve in Wind Cave National Park, the ABS stocked it with 14 bison. In Yellowstone National Park, managers there were initiating a robust breeding program using East Coast bison. Yellowstone continued that breeding program until 1952 when the herd there numbered upwards of 1,500 head. 

Shipping bison from Fordham Station, Bronx, New York to Wind Cave, South Dakota. 

By 1919, the ABS had been directly involved in creating nine different bison herds across the United States. All told, they boosted bison numbers to an estimated 12,500 animals. This was a far cry from the tens of millions that once roamed the West, but their goal wasn’t to bring back millions of bison. Their goal was to save them from extinction and increase their numbers. In 1935, the ABS held their final meeting before voting itself out of existence. With an estimated 22,000 bison in the United States by then, they had accomplished their mission. 

Today, there are an estimated 350,000 bison—15,000 of which can be found roaming public land. In 2005, the American Bison Society was re-launched by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Incidentally, the WCS was originally called the New York Zoological Society, which was founded by members of the Boone and Crockett Club and created the Bronx Zoo. 

Bison restoration efforts across the United States continue to this day. Private groups aim to grow their herds, while government agencies like the National Park Service try to balance social and biological carrying capacity with growing populations. We will never see waves of bison stretching to the horizon, but thanks to people like William T. Hornaday and other members of the Boone and Crockett Club, the story of bison restoration is one more living, breathing story of successful conservation. 

The Zoological Society selected 15 of the finest bison from their herd, and with most generous aid from the American and Wells-Fargo Express Companies (who carried the herd free of all cost), they were delivered at the southern boundary of the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve in southwestern Oklahoma.

About the Impact Series

In an interview published in the New York Herald on January 27, 1913, designer/sculptor James Earle Fraser was quoted as saying that the animal, which he did not name, was a "typical and shaggy specimen" which he found at the Bronx Zoo.​​​​​​​


Hornaday, left, at the Bronx Zoo with a bison that was crated for transport to the Wichita Forest and Game Preserve, October 1907


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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt