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The sparkle in his eyes and energy in his voice revealed Marc Hanna’s love of telling the story. “Lamar Buffalo Ranch is like the Mount Sinai of the environmental movement,” he concluded, “we got the tablets here.” The group of writers and guides gathered around the table erupted in spontaneous applause.
After a morning in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley—“America’s Serengeti”—we were already enamored with everything. Our knowledgeable guides, peeks of sunshine, countless elk, eagles, coyotes, and herds of bison—visible as dark mounds through the swirl of a passing snow squall—all combined in a kaleidoscope of wonder.
To top it off, we paused for lunch at Lamar Buffalo Ranch. These quaint, historic buildings gathered next to a large corral date back to a very different time in Yellowstone National Park—a time when the seeds of our current environmental ethics were just beginning to sprout. While bison survived the mass extinctions of other megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene, they fared much worse during the 1800s. Settlers, market hunting, sport hunting, and a U.S. Army campaign nearly eliminated these majestic creatures—once numbering more than 30 million—from our prairies.
Even the creation of our first National Park, with security provided by the U.S. Army, couldn’t fully protect the remaining bison from poachers. The Army’s “snowshoe cavalry” built patrol cabins in the woods for their campaign against poachers. They skied between huts on large wooden planks, called “Norwegian snowshoes.” Four surviving remote cabins still provide housing for National Park Service (NPS) patrols and researchers. But in the end, an even more dramatic approach was needed to save the last of the bison. With just 23 free-ranging bison left in the park, the U.S. Army created a new herd in 1902, using pure-bred captive bison from ranches in Montana and Texas. The cabins and corral at Lamar Buffalo Ranch were built to protect the new herd, oversee their breeding, provide them with supplemental feeding in the winter, and eventually propagate more than 1,300 bison by 1954.
According to Marc Hanna, this marked the first time in history that humans had hunted an animal to the brink of extinction, then taken a step back, desired the recovery of the species, and fully facilitated their captive breeding and release. That is why Marc called Buffalo Ranch the “Mount Sinai of the environmental movement.” The ethics and values embodied in these old buildings still propel our conservation efforts today.
Just up the hill behind the corral, in a thick stand of trees, lie the remains of one of the wolf release pens from their reintroduction just twenty years ago. The Army’s campaign to save the bison was surely a precursor to the wolf recovery effort. Today, wolves and bison rival each other for the title of most iconic species in Yellowstone. What if neither had survived?
The ripples don’t stop there. A thousand miles from Yellowstone, but just down the road from my house in northern Wisconsin, there are reintroduced populations of American martens and elk. Perhaps, according to Marc at least, any modern effort to protect, increase, or release a floundering species can be tied back to the small herd of bison once cared for by the Army.
With such an illustrious history in the active stewardship of Yellowstone, it is fitting that these buildings still have a role in inspiring conservation. After the addition of old tourist cabins in the 1980s, and a remodeling project in 1993, Lamar Buffalo Ranch became a residential learning center. Middle school students stay in the cozy cabins during their “Expedition: Yellowstone!” educational program put on by the NPS.
The Yellowstone Association Institute also uses the campus for their Field Seminars that combine “field excursions and classroom presentations to give you a complete overview of the Yellowstone ecosystem.”
One such class was working quietly in the back room as we opened box lunches and listened to Marc’s story. Eleanor Williams Clark, a recently retired NPS administrator, was sharing her expertise in keeping “The Artistic Journal in Deep Winter.”
A dozen or so students worked in a variety of media as Eleanor opened her personal field journals for us. Vibrant colors of dried grasses, willows, and wildlife shone from the pages, and herds of bison rumbled through the rainbows, too. The beauty she captured was soul-grabbing, and would inspire anyone toward conservation. The legacy of Buffalo Ranch continues. Marc is the campus manager for these Field Seminars, and plainly loves connecting visitors to this amazing landscape and the stories it has to share. He does a great job too; better than I can do from the outside. Maybe you should go visit, and let him tell you the story.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.