Protecting Wildlife in Our National Parks: William Temple Hornaday and the American Bison


American Bison on Display in the South Yard of the Smithsonian Castle, photographer unknown, c. 1886

August is National Parks Month, a time to celebrate the resources that have been preserved across the country for the public. In August of 1916, the US Congress created the National Park Service which today provides access to unparalleled natural beauty and treasured sites in American history. The first national park, Yellowstone National Park, was created in 1872 as “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” In 1890 Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia National Parks were established in California, and Mount Rainier National Park was set aside in the State of Washington in 1899. But, it was often difficult to protect these treasures in their early years. In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, giving the President new authority "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments."  Ten years later, the network of individual natural parks was merged under the new National Park Service.

Hornaday's American Bison Exhibit in the U.S. National Museum, photographer unknown, c. 1887, Smiths

Letter from William Temple Hornaday to George Brown Goode, Director of the National Museum, December

Smithsonian staff were strong advocates for the parks and for the Antiquities Act of 1906. One individual who called attention to the condition of the first park, Yellowstone was William Temple Hornaday. In 1886, Hornaday, a  taxidermist for the Smithsonian’s US National Museum, traveled west to collect bison for an exhibit. An avid hunter and naturalist, Hornaday had traveled the globe, collecting exotic animals. In earlier visits to the Great Plains, Hornaday had been awestruck by the herds of millions of bison. But in 1886, he was stunned to find that the herds had vanished, the victims of over-hunting and settlement of the prairies. Hornaday, the hunter, had a conversion experience to Hornaday, the conservationist.

He traveled to Yellowstone National Park, which was now fourteen years old, since he had been told that a herd still existed there, but found that no more than twenty remained. He wrote to Smithsonian Assistant Secretary, George Brown Goode, that “a number of hunters, some of whom distinguished themselves in past years in the slaughter of buffalo, have been, and are now living along the Park boundaries on the East and South for the purpose of killing buffaloes and other game that wanders out of the reservation, or can be safely frightened out.”  He sympathized with the plight of the few park employees: “The fact that the game in the Park is not adequately protected, is notorious. While there is no doubt that the troop charged with police duty is vigilant and active, and well directed, the force is entirely too small, and not sufficiently provided with posts of rendezvous to cover the ground which should be covered.”

Schoolchildren visiting the American Bison Yard at the New National Zoological Park, by Francis Benj

William Temple Hornaday with Bison Calf, Sandy, Next to Smithsonian Castle, photographer unknown, 18

Hornaday’s shock at the loss of the American bison or buffalo in the West led him to take action. He asked Smithsonian management to urge the Congress to establish a fence around Yellowstone Park and staff the park adequately. He proposed that the bison exhibit be supplemented with a small herd of live bison to preserve for posterity, and bison were soon grazing in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Castle. This popular display led to the creation of the National Zoological Park at the Smithsonian, with Hornaday its first director. And he became a leader in the American conservation movement with his 1889 book, The Extermination of the American Bison, a call to arms to protect this iconic American animal. As we celebrate National Parks Month, it is important to remember the important role national parks have played in Smithsonian research, and the support the Smithsonian has had for our national parks.

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