Last of the Wild Buffalo

Long displayed, long dispersed, the famous Hornaday bison “family” is reunited in a new home

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When, in 1957, twenty years after Hornaday's death, the Buffalo Group was dismantled and curators found the note from Hornaday, they treasured it, but they chose not to heed its advice. They moved the six Hornaday buffalo downstairs to the basement and replaced them with a new display, employing fresh and handsome pelts of animals recently killed in the National Bison Range in Montana, which Hornaday had helped establish in 1908. The new buffalo skins, unlike their predecessors, did not belong to animals that had ever been free.

But the Hornaday buffalo did not stay long in the dusty Washington, D.C. basement. Instead of rotting away to "dust and ashes," in 1958 the specimens — bull, spike bull, yearling, two cows and Sandy — were shipped to Missoula, Montana, where the University of Montana wanted to incorporate them into a small museum.

Instead, the school eventually distributed the specimens to various other sites in Montana. The large bull — the "splendid animal" — was given to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, where it remained until it was acquired in 1970 by Jack Lepley, director of the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum in Fort Benton.

But in 1988, Doug Coffman, a writer and naturalist in Eugene, Oregon, read about Hornaday's Buffalo Group and decided to track down its components. Coffman had become interested in the group as a symbol not only of the buffalo and their near extermination but also of the birth and many successes of the American conservation movement.

Between 1988 and 1990, Coffman located and documented all six specimens, and he and Lepley found funding to reunite the "family." Taxidermists were commissioned to restore the six old buffalo, even cleaning their still-original glass eyes. Reunited and refurbished, today the group stands in the new wing of the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum as a shrine to history and memory — to the buffalo's loss and rebirth, and the group's dispersion and reunion. The resurrected version is not encased but stands on a pedestal surrounded by guardrails. Instead of the old glass case, only an invisible fence of history — the passing of years, miles and lives — remains to separate visitors and buffalo.

By Hanna Rose Shell

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