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."
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.