William Temple Hornaday—Rescuing the American Bison

In an iconic image of the preeminent success of his life’s work, William Temple Hornaday—another one of our past environmental heroes—is holding a leash and looking down lovingly at a newborn American bison (more commonly called the buffalo). We owe Hornaday a deep debt of gratitude for personally saving this symbol of the western American landscape from almost certain extinction.

Hornaday was born in 1851 in Avon, Indiana, and educated at Oskaloosa College (now Iowa State University). While working as a taxidermist in the 1870s, he had the opportunity to join a series of scientific expeditions. Traveling extensively throughout the United States and the world—to Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas, South America, India, Sri Lanka, the Malay Peninsula, and Borneo—Hornaday gained quite a reputation as a marksman in hunting big game animals. He also applied his taxidermy skills to create what he called life groups—featuring animals in their natural settings—for museums across the country. In 1882, Hornaday’s high-quality animal displays vaulted him into the position of chief taxidermist of the United States National Museum, at the distinguished Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

In this post at the Smithsonian, Hornaday took it upon himself to investigate what he had heard about the dwindling herd of American bison on the western prairies. He sent hundreds of letters to ranchers, settlers, explorers, and homesteaders all over the American west.

What he heard back painted an appalling and depressing picture. As Hornaday wrote to George Brown Goode, his superior at the Smithsonian, “In the United States the extermination of all the large herds of buffalo is already an accomplished fact.” His diligence in collecting and reporting this discouraging information led to a trip that forever changed his life and set a milestone in the history of North American wildlife management.

In 1886, Hornaday traveled to Montana’s Musselshell River to observe a few remnant bison herds for himself and collect museum specimens before the species went extinct. The fact that he knew what to expect did not diminish the deep distress he felt at seeing that the vast herds of buffalo had vanished and only a few animals still survived in widely scattered groups. To counter his anguish over what he had seen in Montana, Hornaday returned home and, at the still-young age of thirty-six, immediately transformed his work orientation to focus on saving the bison from extinction. To initiate this effort, he acquired live bison that he brought to Washington, DC, and placed on display behind the Smithsonian’s administration building (nicknamed “The Castle” for its unusual architectural design).

Hornaday’s strategic decision to display live bison proved to be sheer genius on two levels. First, the live exhibit was much more popular than the museum’s encased bison group display and soon familiarized thousands of Americans—who had never traveled to the West—with the magnificence of these wildlife icons and the imminent threat of their disappearance forever. Secondly, this created the groundswell of public support Hornaday was seeking and opened the door for funding to ensure the bison’s long-term preservation. It also led to the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, with Hornaday serving as the first director.

Hornaday followed up his successful work at the Smithsonian in 1889 with the publication of The Extermination of the American Bison, a book that proved very popular and generated increased public support to save the species. Then, in 1896, he received the ultimate honor when he was appointed director of New York City’s Bronx Zoo, where he remained for the next thirty years. Now—thanks in large part to Hornaday’s efforts—the Bronx Zoo is the foremost zoo in the United States, with a long history of emphasizing the importance of saving American native wildlife.

Throughout his tenure at the Bronx Zoo, Hornaday used his impressive skills as an articulate orator and influential writer to produce hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and more than twenty books. His works led to the passage of important conservation and wildlife protection legislation. In particular, his unceasing efforts battling against old-fashioned bureaucrats and obstinate politicians led to the passage of the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty and, most notably, the 1918 Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which still protects all migratory birds in the United States.

By 1918, the buffalo was no longer in danger of extinction, thanks in large part to Hornaday’s diligent efforts. Today, the National Wildlife Federation carries on his legacy by helping to ensure that free-roaming buffalo herds will forever be found across the American landscape. In the process of dedicating his life to preserving the American bison, Hornaday also earned the title “Founder of the American Conservation Movement.”

Climate-change activists can learn a great deal from studying William Temple Hornaday’s biography. First, he dedicated his life to a cause and then figured out how to create the groundswell of public support needed to accomplish his goal. The positive techniques he used to accomplish his objective are also admirable. Instead of emphasizing a doomsday outcry for the American bison, Hornaday first turned the public on to the beauty of these burly beasts and then kept emphasizing that it was not too late to save them from extinction. This is exactly the same approach we need to emphasize with climate change: while the livability of our magnificent planet is in serious jeopardy, it’s not too late to save it—if we all act together right now.

Author: Budd Titlow

BS, Biology-Chemistry, Florida State University, 1970 MS, Wildlife Ecology-Fisheries Science, Virginia Tech, 1973 btitlow@aol.com / www.agpix.com/titlow / www.buddtitlow.com Home: 850-320-6480 / Cell: 919-886-0330 A Professional Wildlife Biologist and Emeritus Wetlands Scientist currently residing in Tallahassee, Florida, Budd Titlow has authored and published four natural history / environmental conservation books: PROTECTING THE PLANET—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (Prometheus Books—ISBN 978-1633882256), BIRD BRAINS—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (Lyons Press—ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5), SEASHELLS—Jewels from the Ocean (Voyageur Press—ISBN 978-0-7603-2593-3), and ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK—Beyond Trail Ridge (Westcliffe Publishers—ISBN 0-942394-22-4). As a life-long naturalist, outdoor enthusiast, and educator, Budd has also owned and operated NATUREGRAPHS—Freelance Photography and Writing—for the past 40 years. His photographs have won awards in most major international and national natural history photo contests. He has also published more than 100 photo-essays and 5,000 photographs. His credits include the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Wall Calendar, BBC Wildlife Magazine, Sierra Club Notecards, Outdoor Photographer, National Wildlife, Audubon, Outside, Nature’s Best, Travel/Holiday, Time/Life Publications, Popular Photography, Petersen’s Photographic, and many more publications. Throughout his career, Budd has shared his love of photography and nature by presenting more than 50 seminars and workshops throughout the nation; including Staff Naturalist for the Umstead Hotel and Conference Center in Cary, North Carolina (two years); Artist-in-Residence at The Ford Plantation in Savannah, Georgia (two years); North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) (two years); New England Council of Camera Clubs (NECCC) (two years); National Wildlife Federation (fifteen years); National Audubon Society (two years); Massachusetts Audubon Society (five years); Maine Island Workshops (two years); Florida State University (four years), and Florida Audubon (three years). Additionally, Budd has presented more than 100 multi-media programs on natural resources (wetlands/wildlife/rare species), conservation, and environmental management topics to monthly meetings, annual conferences, and specialty workshops throughout the United States. Budd also owns and operates Titlow Ecological Services where he provides freelance environmental consulting and permitting. His career includes 13 years as a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) Compliance Specialist with the federal government, including eight years with the National Park Service, and 25 years as a Project/Group Manager for private environmental/engineering consulting firms in New England, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida.

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