I am still on the trail of Bison bison, and Tom McHugh’s The Time of the Buffalo has been an important trail guide. If you remember the Disney film The Vanishing Prairie with its buffalo and prairie dogs, then you have seen the work of Tom McHugh, as he was the principal photographer.
The Time of the Buffalo is not a picture book, although it has some neat pictures.
It is a survey of all that we know about Bison bison, its natural history and its human history, that is, the history of its interactions with us. After professional hide hunters almost exterminated the animal in the 1870s and 1880s, a few devoted naturalists managed to save a remnant herd from which today’s buffalo population descends. Writing in 1972, McHugh says
Such losses cannot be redeemed later; once an animal is gone from the earth, it is gone forever. In an effort to save the threatened species, a few men are working to undo the errors of the many. They are engaged in a fierce struggle against our culture’s reckless disregard for rare widlife, primitive peoples, and irreplaceable timberlands, marshes, seashores, and other domains.
The buffalo flourishes now, not by accident, but as a result of dedicated effort. Other species have not been so fortunate. McHugh give us a warning, but he also gives us hope.