The buffalo's survival potential against grizzlies, bullets and trucks is one measure of its talent for self-preservation. Says Basolo, "A buffalo calf, four to six minutes after it's born, gets up, takes a sip of milk and is off and running. Even when it's born in a blizzard. An ordinary calf just lies there in a heap. A beef calf'll put half the Great Plains between himself and a rattlesnake. A buffalo calf will jump on it and slash it to shreds." Days before the mountain-moving Yellowstone earthquake of 1959, locally resident buffalo had moved out. Well before any storm, buffalo—unlike cattle—will head for the hilltops, where they cannot get drifted in by snow. With commendable foresight, they will have left the grass on hills uneaten, conserving a supply for winter.
The near extermination of so accomplished an animal strains credulity. With the same ingratitude, the Children of Israel would have preferred Wonder Bread to manna. Buffalo meat is the American demonstration that food from heaven is not only free but of gourmet quality—finer-grained, more tender and sweeter than beef. "'Only prejudice could have led the pioneers to replace the buffalo with European cattle," Basolo rumbles.
He speaks easily and unselfconsciously of the pioneers, without reference to myth or dissolving legend. The frontier is Wyoming's immediate past and, more than anywhere else in America, its present and future. The pioneers are seen and remembered travelers who have but recently passed by. And the B-Bar-B, its 66,626 acres of amber buffalo grass extending endlessly toward turquoise butteland, is deepest Wyoming, 70 miles southeast of Buffalo, 40 miles north of Bill and 40 miles northwest of Dull Center. Driving south on the main highway to Casper, one crosses 30 miles of sage before the first sight of house, barn, man or motorcar.
Muley deer, sage hens, prairie dogs, falcons and bobcats abound on the untouched land. Two of the ranch's 5,000 antelope even locked horns, with 1,500 buffalo as backdrop, the day before The Big Kill. So frequently do eagles yaw across the sky that Basolo once hunted them in planes. Aiming between prop and strut was a more than sporting proposition: for every chance he had of bringing down an eagle, Basolo had two chances of bringing down his plane.
It must have been unalloyed drive that made a boy who herded cattle for 50� a day and went to work in a meat-packing plant at age 14 into the millionaire Basolo does not act like. But his romanticism is making B-Bar-B his monument. Basolo has had to endure rustlers and bankers (try asking a bank for $3 million to raise buffalo), but he seems to be proving that the bison can come back as a better, more economical meat animal than beef cattle. If—in perfect irony—buffalo do supplant cattle in any numbers, it will be because Basolo adopted the bison as totem and talisman of an American West that turns sons of Italian immigrants into owners of 66,000 acres of Wyoming sunset. Yet Basolo himself disclaims any unique mission. "It's not just me," he says. "All Americans love buffalo. Can't help loving 'em. The buffalo is their heritage."
Basolo is right. Most Americans do love buffalo, but there was one exception right on the B-Bar-B last month, a skinner skinning his 112th bison of the day. "They got too damn many buffalo here," he growled. It was a complaint few Americans had thought they would ever hear again.