SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
November 23, 1970
Some call it sport and some call it butchery, but nobody is truly happy as Arizona's 'surplus' bison are shot in a fenced pasture
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November 23, 1970

The Great Buffalo Hunt? Shoot? Slaughter?

Some call it sport and some call it butchery, but nobody is truly happy as Arizona's 'surplus' bison are shot in a fenced pasture

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The southern edge of the Colorado plateau extending into northern Arizona is terrible country for almost everything but tourists and Quik Snak Shoppes. It is hot as a desert in the summer, cold as a tundra in the winter. What little rain falls comes down all at once in land-gouging torrents. The snow is an abrasive mixture of ice and grit. The soil is thin and poor: sand, gravel, volcanic ash. The whole place is raked by a skinning wind that blows out of the northwest. It is the kind of land given to Indians for reservations and to minor government agencies—ones that lack political clout.

One such agency is the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which owns Raymond Ranch, halfway between Flagstaff and Winslow. The ranch serves as range for wild antelope and as the year-round residence for about half of a state-managed herd of 300 buffalo. By standards that apply elsewhere, Raymond Ranch is a big place—15,000 acres. But such is the nature of this land that the 15,000 acres can comfortably support only 150 buffalo.

A notable characteristic of the American bison has always been its fecundity, and the Raymond Ranch herd is no exception, producing between 50 and 100 calves a year. Every other year surplus animals are disposed of by means of something that is variously called, depending on the viewpoint, a bison harvest (by Arizona game managers), a buffalo hunt or shoot (by gunners), a slaughter and disgrace to humanity (by protectionists). Recently, on four bright fall days, Arizona held its 17th harvest-hunt-disgrace.

There are always fewer excess buffalo than would-be buffalo hunters, so who actually gets to shoot is determined by lottery. This year 474 gunners applied to shoot 80 buffalo. The hunt works as follows. At the appointed time the surplus buffalo are driven in small groups into a fenced pasture. An equal number of gunners are escorted into the killing field by state game agents. Then, from a distance of 10 to 50 yards, they are allowed to fire away at the buffalo of their choice. For this opportunity the gunner pays $45. He is entitled to keep the head, hide and a front quarter of his buffalo, with the remaining meat being sold to the public. This constitutes the bare bones of the Raymond Ranch hunt, but much more is involved—including history, nostalgia and guilt.

The first Europeans to meet a buffalo were Hernando Cortes and his troopers who, prior to knifing its owner, saw a bull in the private zoo of an Aztec emperor, Montezuma II. They were impressed. "A wonderful composition of divers Animals," wrote Cortes. "It has crooked shoulders, with a Bunch on its back like a Camel; its Flanks dry, its Tail large, and its Neck covered with Hair like a Lion. It is cloven footed, its Head armed like that of a Bull, which it resembles in Fierceness with no less Strength and Agility." And this remains a good description of a bull bison.

At the beginning of the last century there were between 60 and 75 million bison in our land. They were so big and numerous, and there was so much energy locked in the flesh of the enormous herds, that they dictated how, when and where the land might be used, much as did the mountains, rivers and climate. Yet by the end of the century, none—absolutely no free-roaming buffalo—were left. The very last of the truly wild buffalo, two bulls, a cow and her calf, were killed simply for the fun of it in February 1897 in Park County, Colo. No fancy ecological theories have ever been needed to explain the extermination of the buffalo. We just shot them until only four were left out of 60 million—and then we shot the four.

The details of the great buffalo hunt that lasted for three-quarters of the 19th century are well known. The techniques of killing a buffalo, some of the remarkable hunts and the hunters themselves have become American folktales. Among the most famous of the buffalo hunters was Charles Jesse Jones, known throughout the country as Buffalo Jones. Hunter, scout, Indian fighter, lion tamer, musk-ox and rhinoceros roper, railroad magnate, stock promoter, lecturer, author, maker and loser of quick fortunes, friend of Presidents, tutor and hero of Zane Grey, part Frank Buck and part bunco artist, Buffalo Jones was one of the Renaissance men of the American West. He was also the man without whom there would be no Raymond Ranch buffalo herd.

When the great hunt was on in the '70s Jones killed buffalo the way virtually every other Western hustler did, firing his 16-pound Sharps until the gun got too hot, urinating down the barrel to cool it, and laying out his 50 or 60 animals a day. But Jones did not earn his name killing buffalo. He became Buffalo Jones because in 1884, when there were only a hundred or so bison left hiding out in brushy canyons, Jones did something unique. In a series of quixotic, amazingly difficult trips, he went out in the Texas Panhandle to rope and bring back alive the last of the wild buffalo.

By 1890 he had 150 head fenced in on his Garden City, Kans. ranch. It was then the largest existent herd of bison, and Buffalo Jones, to his everlasting credit, did more than anybody else to save the species from extinction. Jones had mixed motives. He used his herd to promote his lectures, his stock schemes and, always, himself. Like a gambler with a good gold watch, Jones would hock or sell part of the herd when his luck was bad, reclaim it when he was in the chips.

In 1905 Jones talked his friend Teddy Roosevelt out of grazing rights to an enormous chunk of land in the Kaibab, a plateau north of the Grand Canyon. Then he reclaimed his scattered buffalo herd, gathered together some old buffalo-catching cronies of the 1880s, moved to the Kaibab and announced that within 10 years he would be the meat king of the Western world. He was going to accomplish this by breeding buffalo to cattle and wild big-horn rams to domestic Persian ewes.

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