For 2,000 miles, two young cow bison rode in a horse trailer from near Malta to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., earlier this summer.
It wasn’t the first time bison made that trek.
In 1886, William Temple Hornaday, then chief taxidermist for the Smithsonian, traveled to Montana, concerned that the American bison was on the verge of extinction.
He was shocked and dismayed that such an abundant and charismatic species could be hunted to near extinction, said Doug Coffman, who wrote a book on Hornaday titled “Reflecting the Sublime: The Rebirth of an American Icon.”
It was Hornaday’s mission to document the bison before it disappeared. The animal that once numbered somewhere between 40 million and 60 million had dwindled to a few isolated groups.
“He was duty bound to preserve the record that the bison species ever existed at all,” Coffman said.
Hornaday spent three months in 1886 hunting the uplands northwest of Miles City between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers and harvested six bison to be taken back to the nation’s capital, taxidermied and placed on display at the Smithsonian.
The trip was a turning point for not only Hornaday, but also for the American conservation movement and the foundation of a National Zoological Park.
“The wild buffalo is practically gone forever, and in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up and shipped East for commercial uses, nothing will remain of him, save his old, well-worn trails along the water-courses, a few museum specimens, and regret for his fate,” Hornaday wrote is an 1887 report titled “The Extermination of the American Bison.”
It was with that grim prediction that Hornaday pleaded to his superiors at the Smithsonian to allow him to also bring live bison to the museum. Those superiors agreed.
“He housed them right on the grounds of the Natural History Museum, right on the Mall,” Coffman said. “You can imagine that they quickly outgrew their space.”
Needing additional space for the large animals, Hornaday went to Congress and lobbied for funding to start a national zoo.
In 1889, Congress passed an act establishing the National Zoological Park. In 1891, the National Zoo, part of the Smithsonian, opened in its current location in Rock Creek Park inside the District of Columbia.
In celebration of its 125th anniversary, the National Zoo recently opened a bison exhibit featuring two young bison cows from Montana.
The bison were donated by the American Prairie Reserve near Malta.
“They’re awesome,” said Steven Sarro, curator for the National Zoological Park. “These two girls have been incredible.”
The new bison exhibit at the zoo is in the same location where bison originally were housed at the Rock Creek Park facility.
Bison have been housed at the zoo as recently as 11 or 12 years ago, Sarro said.
“The director was interested in bringing bison back to the National Zoo for the 125-year anniversary,” he said.
The two bison are genetically pure, meaning they haven’t been cross-bred with cattle.
“Bison can hybridize with domestic cattle,” Sarro explained.
The bison are named Zora and Wilma, weigh 550 and 500 pounds respectively, and are expected to grow to up to 1,100 pounds.
Howard University and Gallaudet University, both located in Washington, D.C., and both of which have bison mascots, named the animals. Howard University students chose to name one bison Zora in honor of alumna Zora Neal Hurston, acclaimed author, poet and civil rights activist.
Students at Gallaudet University selected the name Wilma in honor of alumna Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman elected to serve in the Republic of South Africa’s parliament.
Sarro was concerned about how well the bison would adapt to a pen with crowds watching them, after coming from a large range where they might see one or two people per week. They settled in easily.
“I’ve worked with bison before, and these two are incredible,” he said.
The new bison exhibit represents more than just two new animals at the National Zoo.
“They’re so iconic for, not only the United States, but for the National Zoo,” Sarro said. “There’s a huge history, not only for natural history, but for social history that goes along with bison.”
The six bison Hornaday harvested in eastern Montana were on display at the Smithsonian until the mid-1950s.
“I get the sense that some guy came along, and said I’m not dusting these anymore,” said Randy Morger, executive director of the River and Plains Society in Fort Benton.
The decision was made to remove the bison, and while the display was being dismantled, a worker found a note tucked into a metal box hidden in the display.
Hornaday had written a note across the top of the title page of an article that appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1888. The article was titled “The Passing of the Buffalo,” by William T. Hornaday.
“My illustrious successor,” Hornaday wrote, “Enclosed, please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group. The Old Bull, the young cow and the yearling calf were killed by yours truly. When I am dust and ashes, I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction …”
“That’s all written in his own hand,” Coffman said. “By the time the message was found in 1957, Hornaday was 20 years in the grave.”
The Smithsonian went forward with plans to remove the display and sent the animals to the University of Montana, in Missoula, then called Montana State University.
They were displayed for a short time at the field house, then moved to storage.
“From the late 1950s onward … the specimens just fell into obscurity,” Coffman said.
Coffman, an independent scholar who has long been interested in bison, in the 1980s did a major review of bison literature and kept coming across references to the famous bison group that stood in the National Museum. What Coffman couldn’t find was information on what had happened to the bison specimens.
“I became curious and started asking around,” said Coffman, who previously lived in Missoula and now lives in Portland, Oregon.
It took several years, but he eventually tracked down all six animals. Two were in storage at Fort Missoula. Three more were housed in the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. The large bull had been kept temporarily at the Fish, Wildlife and Parks office in Helena and was moved to the River and Plains Society in Fort Benton in the 1970s.
“That’s where I finally encountered it in ’88 or ’89.”
Coffman, along with Jack Lepley, then-director of the River and Plains Society, launched a campaign to reunite all six bison specimens at the River and Plains Society. After a fund drive, the restored animals were returned to Fort Benton in 1992. The drive also raised funds for Museum of the Northern Great Plains to be built, opening in 1996.
The Hornaday Bison still stand today at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, displayed almost exactly as they appeared for nearly 70 years at the Smithsonian.
The bison display represents the beginning of wildlife conservation in America.
“(Hornaday) is generally credited with galvanizing the American conservation movement,” Coffman said.
He founded the American Bison Society, where he was co-president with Theodore Roosevelt and also went on the save the Alaskan fur seal, create the Migratory Bird Act and found the New York Zoological Society.
He waged what is now called the 30-year war for wildlife, and it all started with the bison, Coffman said.
Coffman attended the grand opening of the new bison exhibit in late August.
“It was a momentous time because of William Hornaday’s legacy,” he said.
“Our founder William Temple Hornaday envisioned a national zoo where bison and other vanishing species would thrive,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo.
With the opening of the newest exhibit, bison now thrive at the zoo and in the wild, where they are far from being a vanishing species.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.