A lank, long-mustached wearer of buckskin booted a Springfield rifle named Lucretia Borgia and rode a horse named Brigham onto the Kansas prairie one morning in 1869 to begin work at one of the commonest trades in the West. That day William Frederick Cody, Buffalo Bill, secured his name and legend by shooting 69 bison. On another morning, with snow driving in from the northwest in 50-mile-an-hour gusts, another buck-skin-shirted, sideburned man with hair longer than the custom rode onto the Wyoming prairie east of the Belle Fourche. That day he shot twice as many buffalo as Cody had. He shot from greater distances and aimed for a smaller target, the silver-dollar-size spot below the ear which is the one place a buffalo can be killed clean. He did have superior equipment, because the date was later: September 25, 1964.
Like Cody, Domenith Clarence Basolo Jr. kills for meat. But unlike Cody, who contributed to the virtual extinction of the species, Basolo's every shot is helping restore the buffalo to the West. He runs his 104-square-mile B-Bar-B Ranch for the sole purpose of raising buffalo: from an initial 14 head, his herd has increased to 2,658, a number he hopes to double every four years. An operation of this magnitude would be prohibitively expensive without proceeds from meat and pelts. But even if that were not true, Basolo would still shoot a good number of animals each year. His objective is the transformation of the buffalo from a living museum piece into a viable economic entity, rapidly multiplying in the 1960s and 1970s for reasons as unsentimental as those that led to its decimation in the 1860s and 1870s. The Big Kill furthers that goal in two ways. First, because buffalo bulls would rather fight than breed, Basolo's harvest of yearlings and 2-year-old bulls accelerates reproduction. Second, his program of culling inferior bulls is needed to improve and strengthen the breed.
Basolo thinks of himself as a practical conservationist, and a mere mention of the great 19th century slaughter ignites his ire. "In 1800," he says, "the North American bison was the most numerous large mammal on earth, even outnumbering humans. As late as 1870, there were 60 to 100 million. By 1889, only 895 were left." Basolo's figure for 1870 is not an exaggeration. An observer of that period sometimes had his view so rimmed by buffalo that at no point could he see the horizon. When herds numbering four million decided to cross the Missouri River or the Union Pacific tracks, boats and trains had to stop for hours. When they forded smaller rivers, they would dam the stream.
By early 1883 the largest remaining herd was 1,000 head in western Dakota. In October of that year Sitting Bull killed every one. Unbelieving hunting parties in the spring of '84 found themselves forced to live on rabbit and squirrel. The bison, which had ranged from Washington to Florida, had been reduced to a few miserable strays. Not as many as 90 wild buffalo survived.
The pilgrims who assembled at the B-Bar-B last month to participate in or to witness the largest buffalo hunt in 81 years did so in quiet thanksgiving, for in 1884 there had been every indication that in 80 years the buffalo would be seen by Americans only in hindsight, never in gunsight. Present were the sheriff of Sweetwater County, Wyoming and the sheriff of San Mateo County, California; a South Dakota rancher who flew in for the afternoon and a South Dakota congressional candidate who flew himself in for the evening; Pappy, a Choctaw from Oklahoma; and Bob Hughes, an expatriate Cornishman. They, or someone, consumed 175 eggs at breakfast.
There was some feeling at 6 o'clock in 34� of wet, windy Wyoming morning that 175 was not an egg too many on which to begin 14 hours of buffalo hunt. Optimism inspired by Basolo's first two shots—clean kills—was premature. Both yearlings were somewhat separated from their herd, and the most ferocious beast on the continent ignores innocuous popping sounds 300 yards away. Progress became less easy very soon. Basolo's next shot put a Weatherby .300 magnum bullet squarely in the middle of a 2-year-old bull's head. The bull shook his head and stalked off, cussing out the B-Bar-B flies.
Basolo shook his own head and said, "You have to be dead on. Shock has virtually no effect on these animals; you have to really kill them." Later Peace Officer Earl Whitmore had a chance to test that proposition. Twelve holes put in the head of one animal failed to reach the vital spot. The buffalo did not fall. It lowered its horns and charged. Only a quick matador step by the incumbent saved San Mateo County the unexpected expense of a by-election for sheriff.
More often than it will charge, a buffalo not felled by the first shot will run. Bison being gregarious beasts, the herd will romp along with the casualty. Now, galloping buffalo resemble nothing so much as rhinoceroses that have had ballet lessons, yet they attain speeds of 45 miles an hour, faster than horse or truck can sustain over Wyoming washes. Their pursuers, like the earliest Indians, must anticipate where they are going and intercept them. If the herd does arrive where expected, most of it will be milling about the wounded member. This discourages wolves and any rifleman attempting to finish off a particular buffalo. Basolo has become skilled at putting a bullet, with scant inches to spare, between two running buffalo to hit a third. He will also walk into 500 buffalo, selecting his target as the animals scatter. The buffalo do not always flee. After his first take in. one herd, the buffalo conversation—a cross between growl and grunt—became a roar. Humps hunched, and little flag, like tails came up and waved. Basolo signaled to his distant truck to come pick him up, double time.
"All it would take is my hat blow off an' here they come," he said as he clambered aboard. "A pistol saved my life last year. This dead buffalo got up and charged. I just throwed out my pistol without time to aim. Not good shooting, just luck."
Basolo added, grinning, '"Cowards like me stand. That way you have one real good chance to bluff a bull and one real good chance to drop him. If you run, you have no chance at all. A buffalo is four times as strong as an ordinary bull. He can turn you inside out with one twitch of his horns. One tangled with a grizzly in Yellowstone recently. He killed it."