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Only one of the hoofed mammals has never been a game animal. The curious arctic musk ox inhabits the barrens north of the tree line from Greenland to Alaska, where, in 1930, it was reintroduced on Nunivak Island. The original Alaskan population, which became extinct near Wainwright about 1865, was one of the few North American forms for the destruction of which the natives are probably as responsible as the white man; the musk ox herd's defensive circle, bulwarked by sharp, downswept horns and a shaggy blanket of hair extending to the ground, is effective against wolves, but invited mankind to pick off the stolid animals one by one, with rifle or even spear. In the first years of this century, an estimated 600 musk ox were killed for food by Admiral Peary's expeditions to the Arctic alone. Aside from the Nunivak herd, which numbers about 125 (1957), there is another protected band on the Thelon Game Sanctuary northeast of Great Slave Lake, in the Northwest Territories. The few thousand scattered elsewhere on the barren coasts and islands east to Greenland are legally protected, but their predators—bears, wolves and occasional Eskimos—pay small attention to their privileged status.
A North American relative of the musk ox is the bison, which, like the tule elk, is now extinct in the wild state. The early and accurate predictions of the bison's end are somewhat surprising in view of the fact that well into the 19th century an estimated 60 million still trampled the Great Plains. Certainly this was the western species, the simultaneous abundance and diminution of which was most striking and disturbing. A systematic slaughter had commenced by mid-century, and Parkman, who was fascinated by the huge, dark beasts—at certain seasons they quite literally turned the prairies to seas of black—well understood their role in the welfare of the Plains Indians. "The buffalo supplies them with the necessaries of life; with habitations, food, clothing, beds and fuel; strings for their bows, glue, thread, cordage, trail ropes for their horses, coverings for their saddles, vessels to hold water, boats to cross streams, and the means of purchasing all that they want from the traders. When the buffalo are extinct, they too must dwindle away."
The Indians themselves, contrary to sentimental legend, had been fearfully wasteful of the bison. Nevertheless, the red men, addicted to intertribal warfare, remained few, and, even after they learned to tame wild mustangs, made no serious inroad on the bovine hordes. The harsh conditions of the habitat, rather than the red hunters, kept the great animals from overgrazing and destroying the vast pasture of rich grass which rolled from Canada to Texas.
Or so it was until just after mid-century, when surveys for a Pacific railroad were undertaken by the War Department. It was the completion of this railroad, with the meeting of Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines at Promontory, Utah in 1869, that set in motion the final frenzied assault upon the bison, not only by trappers, Indians and settlers but by professional meat hunters like Buffalo Bill Cody. The railroad provided transportation to the eastern markets, and it cut the great remaining herd in two. Other rail lines, following quickly, fanned out across the buffalo range like cracks in glass.
The southern herd was the first to go. Between 1872 and 1874, well over a million animals were shot yearly, and five years later a solitary survivor met its end at Buffalo Springs, Texas, on the cattle trail to Santa Fe. The northern herd was simultaneously reduced, but part of it frequented areas inaccessible to the markets before the extension westward of the Northern Pacific in 1880. Three years after that, a mixed company of Crees and whites trailed the remnants of the northern bison to the Cannonball River of North Dakota. There, by cutting off access to the water, the hunters accomplished the destruction of the entire herd. By the end of the year, stray animals excepted, the buffalo was gone from North America, and a measure was passed without dissent for their protection in North Dakota.
The bison herds were certainly among the greatest animal congregations that ever existed on earth, and the greed and waste which accompanied their annihilation doubtless warrants some sort of superlative also. Most natural historians agree, however, their disappearance was inevitable. Once the settlers discovered the agriculture potential of the long-grass prairies, and the ranchers bred fat livestock on the short-grass plains farther west, the history of these humped, sullen beasts was over. Nevertheless, it is an inescapable fact that the white man, who had adopted all the Indians' worst practices and was given, in addition, to shooting the bison down senselessly from passing trains and other vantage points, had wiped out an animal that, until its very last decade, had numbered in the millions.
"No sight is more common on the plains than that of a bleached buffalo skull; and their countless numbers attest the abundance of the animal at a time not so very long past. On those portions where the herds made their last stand, the carcasses, dried in the clear, high air, or the mouldering skeletons abound.... A ranchman who made a journey of a thousand miles across northern Montana along the Milk River told me that, to use his own expression, during the whole distance he was never out of sight of a dead buffalo, and never in sight of a live one."
So wrote Theodore Roosevelt who, still a young man, ranched in North Dakota in the three years immediately succeeding the slaughter in that state of the last great buffalo herd. The parched remnants were, for Roosevelt, a stark object lesson in the need for animal protection. An ardent amateur biologist and naturalist ever since his days at Harvard, Roosevelt set out with typical vigor to see that the pathetic survivors of the great herds—together with other dwindling resources of the once prodigal plain—received protection through a system of national parks.
Actually, the idea of the national park was given articulate expression as early as 1833. That year George Catlin recommended in print that a "nation's park" be created for future generations in the Indian country of the upper Missouri, but it was not until 1864 that the concept took practical form. Frederick Law Olmsted, who had laid out New York City's Central Park, took up the battle for the Yosemite, and in 1864 California received both the Valley and the Mariposa Grove by federal grant, in a bill signed by President Lincoln. Four years later John Muir, a Scotsman who had just completed a journey on foot of 1,000 miles from Louisville, Ky. to the Florida Gulf Coast, first appeared in the Yosemite. He was already an impassioned and persuasive champion of wilderness preservation, and the reversion of these monumental valleys, cataracts, forests, and High Sierras to federal control is largely associated with his name. Of the forests in this area, Muir wrote, "It took more than 3,000 years to make some of the trees in these western woods—trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time—and long before that—God had cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools...."
Yellowstone, established in 1872, was the first of the national parks, but no sooner had it been set aside than a small army of profiteers swarmed off the newly completed Northern Pacific Railroad and into the park to engage in development schemes so vulgar as to amount to vandalism.