We can thank William Hornaday that some lived
By Forrest Whitman
In 1904, “Old Mose,” one of the last Colorado grizzly bears, was killed near Black Mountain in South Park. If you’d gone elk hunting that same year you would have found the Colorado elk population reduced to a critical survival level. Colorado wildlife in general was crashing and had been for a decade. What happened is a sad story of human greed and ignorance. Wild animal populations of all kinds were hunted to critical levels in only thirty years beginning roughly in 1870. By 1904 it was assumed that the plains buffalo were extinct or soon would be, and that only a few of the mountain buffalo breed were left. Elk, which had once been plentiful in areas like Gilpin County, were rarely seen. Wild bird populations of all kinds were seriously threatened. A few progressive men were fighting for the animals, and one of the toughest was William Temple Hornaday. Biographies of Hornaday, particularity one by Gregory Dehler, all call him tough.
The Symbolic Death of Old Mose
Wharton Pigg captured the Colorado press with his decades long hunt for the “terrifying grizzly Old Mose.” The press never got tired of reporting his hunts or the depredations of Old Mose, who was reported to have killed a thousand head of cattle. He was even charged with killing a man, Jacob Ratliff. Actually Ratliff said he was mauled by a cinnamon bear and his wife said he died from his injuries a couple of weeks later. Nevertheless Pigg told the press Ratliff died in the jaws of Old Mose. In fact, Mose had not killed any man and only two cattle deaths were ever proved to have come from him (or her). That makes sense as grizzlies seldom take down living animals. The one horse Mose was seen eating had been winter killed and mostly the bears eat berries and grubs. Still, the death of Mose at the hands of a friend of Pigg’s, James Anthony, was celebrated. Ironically enough, the bear Pigg had been hunting was one of the last sows. The end of the little grizzly population around Black Mountain was the end of a wildlife era in Colorado. Each one of these extinctions made Hornaday work even harder and he became even more driven. He was determined to end the slaughter and stabilize wildlife populations.
The defiant devil
William Hornaday was not often welcomed in the halls of government. In fact, his nickname became “defiant devil.” He crusaded to set daily bag limits for all sorts of game and to establish wildlife sanctuaries where no hunting would be allowed. He had a “bully pulpit” as director of the Bronx Zoo in New York and the eastern press loved him as the zoo was very popular. When he opened the zoo in 1899 he had 781 animals representing 179 species. When any government agency vote was taken on establishing any wildlife sanctuary, everyone knew who voted which way and why as soon as Hornaday got the votes published into print. Needless to say, he was hated by commercial hunting organizations and many who defended the traditional right to hunt any place and at any time.
He was also distrustful of the very public he sought to influence. His grand idea for zoos was to lead the American people to cherish their wildlife. But, he disliked the crowds at his zoo. They left trash and often seemed disinterested in the educational purpose of his park. This led him to be described as an elitist. He defended his views by saying that small education oriented groups might learn something from zoos, but popcorn eating hordes seeking entertainment would learn nothing. He suggested those popcorn hordes go see a ball game instead.
He had scientific backing for his point of view. He knew that once a population declined below a certain level that species, or the local representation of that species, would be gone. Hornaday was the first author of a scientific wildlife studies series, The destruction of our Birds and Mammals. He worked at a frenzied pace to establish hunting seasons, end commercial hunting, and add bag limits and wildlife sanctuaries because populations were crashing so frequently. In three fifths of the country bird populations were being annihilated. A 77 percent decline in Florida and a 75 percent decline in Montana and declines close to that in Colorado were his examples. Even conservation leaders found him extreme when he orated for an absolute three year shut down of all bird hunting everywhere. Nevertheless he kept at his crusade.
A man of personal flaws
Very few described Hornaday as a nice man. Once he’d had his say at conservations groups he went home, never staying for socializing or drinks. He was abrasive and demanded his employees work around the clock as he did. He was also a racist. Possibly because of his southern background, he disliked African Americans and native peoples and made no secret of his views. He would only hire them for menial jobs. More than one commentator remarked that Hornaday loved diversity in animals, but not in humans. Still, he was effective.
Hornaday and sportsman’s groups part ways
For years Hornaday depended on sportsman’s groups to support his crusade. Indeed, President Teddy Roosevelt was his staunchest supporter. But, by 1919 Roosevelt was dead and the sportsmen regarded Hornaday as becoming more and more radical. Hornaday was himself a hunter and taxidermist, but argued that some areas needed to be hunter-free so the wild animals could live in a free state. Above all, he was horrified that conservation groups were beginning to take money from gun manufacturers. In his view, this compromised them fatally. Hornaday was still allowed to attend meetings of the prestigious conservation clubs such as the Boone and Crockett, but not to join. He remained popular with the Boy Scouts, however. He set up the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund in part to give a gold medal to scouts who performed distinguished service in the field of wildlife conservation. More than 1,200 scouts have earned the award. His cooling relationships with his old allies did not slow him down. States like Colorado began to manage wildlife and bird populations, and to establish bag limits based on scientific data, with federal wildlife sanctuaries being set up. National and state level hunting education classes were implemented and are now a requirement before anyone can even buy a hunting license.
Colorado hunting is up
This year Colorado hunting licenses are selling at a brisk rate. Hunting continues as an important conservation and game management tool as well as being a sport to control growth of wildlife populations with available food sources, and herds have been doing better. Chances of seeing a deer, elk, moose, coyote, or black bear are much better today than in 1920. We may never see wolves or grizzles like Old Mose, nor will we see buffalo roaming freely many places, but there is hope. The legacy of the “defiant devil,” William Temple Hornaday, is intact. When he died leaders of every conservation organization attended and his pallbearers were zoo keepers from his old zoo. The soloist sang his favorite song, “Home on the Range,” and the minister recited “Trees,” his favorite poem.