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  • March 8th, 2019



 By Joel M. Vance


                It was the noon break from an unsuccessful pheasant hunt.  Probably the long-tailed birds were holed up so deep in the frozen cattail marshes that you couldn’t have dug them out with a forklift.  I was giving much thought to calling it a day, but not until I stoked the inner man with the meaty stew burbling on a camp stove.


                This was seemingly limitless native shortgrass prairie, rolling country laced by cutbanks.  No trees interrupted the sere landscape.  Early that morning I had stuck my head out of my tent and blearily glimpsed a coyote heading home after a long night.  A mule deer ambled across the far hill, so there was life in this bleak country.


                Something caught my eye, a fragment of white sticking out of the dirt, a couple of feet below the top of the bank.  I spooned the last of the stew, set down the bowl and gave the thing a closer look.  It appeared to be the tip of a horn.  Probably a long-dead cow, I thought.


                I used my spoon to dig around the horn like a paleontologist after a Tyrannosaurus relic or maybe a dog after a steak bone.  Gradually the horn took shape and it obviously was not from a cow.  It was, I realized, from a bison.


                And, buried that far down in a cut bank, it had to have originated with one of the historic bison that once roamed the Kansas plains in virtually countless numbers.  I forgot the numbing cold and the reason for me being there in the first place—a pheasant hunt—and continued to scrape and dig until the object came completely away into my hands.


                A complete buffalo skull.  It was like digging up a gold nugget the size of a watermelon.  I held history in my hands as never before.  Somewhere back in time, at least a century before, this bison had fallen.  Maybe to a buffalo hunter’s Sharps rifle bullet or possibly even earlier to a Sioux hunter’s arrow.


                Kansas historically was bison country (it is the official state animal and when it came time to enshrine a symbol on the state quarter, it was the bison).  The Great Plains once hosted an incredible number of bison—some estimate as many as 70 million animals.  One Kansas herd near Dodge City was estimated at four million animals in 1871. 


                But everyone knows about the bloody slaughter of the historic herd by hunters and target shooters, partly to acquire hides, but also to clear the path for the railroads (hitting a 2,000-pound bull with a primitive locomotive was discouraged by the railroad barons).  Bison also competed for the shortgrass with increasing herds of cows, and they did not take kindly to fences.  A stampeding herd of bison would instantly reduce a new barbed wire fence to a rancher’s bad dream.


                By 1879 the last Kansas bison was killed near Elkhart in the far southwest corner of the state—far from the Ellis area where I found my treasure.  I’d prefer to think my buffalo succumbed to a Native American hunter, armed with a bow and arrow or perhaps from a single shot trade musket.  At least in that case it would have given its life to sustain a fellow nomadic prairie citizen, rather than to further the interests of a European interloper who left it to rot.


                But maybe it just got old and sick and died.  No wild animal dies in bed.  They just succumb to something—cold, disease, accident, murder–in the wild where they were born.  Whatever caused this bison’s death, its lonely and unmarked grave now was open and I could speculate to the end of my days what brought the animal to this spot.


                As a conversation piece on the mantel there are few things that would attract attention like a complete buffalo skull, but I had a better idea.  I gave the skull to Charlie Schwartz, the genius biologist/artist/moviemaker and friend with whom I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department.


                No one could have appreciated it more or done more with it than Charlie, who was the illustrator for “A Sand County Almanac,” the landmark conservation bible written by Aldo Leopold, and who himself was legendary in prairie chicken research.  Here was an historic prairie animal, united with an historic prairie biologist.


                Charlie held the skull as if it were the Holy Grail.  “I had a bison skull once,” he said.  “But it was from a domestic bison, not the real thing.”  The artist in Charlie appreciated props (he once staked a road-killed deer outside his sliding glass door so he could photograph vultures coming to snack on it.  It was a great prop except when the wind was in the wrong direction.


                I mostly forgot about the skull, back in the reality of work and far from the gully  where I’d dug it out.  One snowy winter morning Charlie came into the Department office and said, “This is the way your skull looked this morning,” and handed me a watercolor painting.  The painting is of our skull in a snowdrift with a sprig of dormant prairie grass poking through an eye socket.  Cold weather seemed to trigger the artistic impulse in Charlie. After another snowstorm he came in the office with a chalk drawing of a woolly mammoth which he had captioned “the new Ice Age dawns”.


                The framed bison painting hangs in our living room, above a bronze sculpture that Charlie did later of a coyote, another prairie citizen, disdainfully peeing on a sprung coyote trap.  I admit to a great admiration for coyotes which in their independence, wariness and sometimes eerie intelligence, irritate the hell out of many hunters.  The late and wonderful outdoor writer John Madson once wrote, “Coyotes are simply more efficient at tuning in on environmental changes than we are, learning fast, applying it sensibly, and succeeding without waste.”


                Unfortunately the bison couldn’t develop that adaptability and nearly vanished.  From millions, market hunters and thrill shooters nearly wiped them out.  Even the Indians helped by killing an estimated 240,000 a year, which was considered to verge on unsustainability.


                For their part pheasants were as foreign to the historic prairie as the thrill shooters of the bison.  Prairie chickens—pinnated grouse—were the plump game birds that pioneers slaughtered in numbers to rival the tally of bison.  And, like the bison, prairie chickens nearly vanished.


                Now there are 18 states with declining populations of greater prairie chickens, but Kansas is tops among six states with a population sizable enough to be hunted.   I hunted prairie chickens for more than 20 years, off and on, until I finally killed one in north-central Kansas.  It smacked of shooting one of the last bison and having done it, I’ll stick to hunting pheasants from here on out.


               As a sporting outing, it was far from other prairie hunts I’ve taken where bagging a bird involved walking endless miles. It was more in the spirit of European driven pheasant shoots where gunners are stationed comfortably armed while beaters flush birds—normally pheasants— over them and they take passing shots. That’s basically what I was doing, minus the beaters and an obliging servant to load my gun for me. I stood beside a telephone pole waiting for an influx of prairie chickens coming to feed near dusk. They sailed over the distant swales, visible hundreds of yards away, heading for the field where I lurked.


                  Prairie chickens fly far swifter than they appear to be doing. I missed several shots before I finally connected and watched with a mixture of satisfaction and sadness as the bird catapulted into the crop stubble 30 yards from me. I picked it up, smoothed its feathers, and realized that my decades long  quest was ended. Even though it was a trophy long sought after, I gave no consideration to having it mounted because to me a mounted bird no matter how dramatic the acquisition is no more than an artificial representation of the real thing and no more than something else to collect dust. Better to admire my memories than some stuffed creature.


                Pheasants entered Europe a thousand years ago from the Far East, and the United States as early as colonial times.  But it wasn’t until 1881 when an introduction into Oregon proved that pheasants could sustain themselves.  Once Kansas entered into the pheasant war, it quickly became a pheasant hotspot.  It often ranks just below South Dakota in annual kill, and always is among the top three or four pheasant hunting states.


                 Bison did not become extinct and exist today in carefully managed herds, but no longer do they roam freely across the diminishing stretches of tallgrass and shortgrass prairie. The estimate is there are some half-million bison in North America, up from a low of an estimated 1000 animals in the late 1800s. That is less than one percent of the population that existed when the first wagon trains rumbled across the Western states.


                I’ve hunted pheasants for at least 40 years, in all the best spots—the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, even Missouri.  I’ve shot many of the long-tailed birds, enjoyed every moment of every hunt.  Only once that I can remember in all those years was I shut out from killing at least one rooster.


                And that was on the Kansas hunt where I discovered the bison skull


                It was the best pheasant hunt I’ve ever had.






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