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Edge of extinction

Michael Punke resurrects buffalo savior George Grinnell

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Aside from fishing on its banks, you couldn’t ask for a better view of the Clark Fork River than the one Michael Punke enjoys from his sixth-floor office at the Millennium Building in downtown Missoula. But as he was writing his new book, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West, it was the Boone and Crockett Club perched near the southern bank of the river that constantly drew Punke’s eye.

“It was funny to me to sit and write this book from here, but I look at that place in a wholly different way now. That’s the first conservation group in America, right over there. And people drive by it all the time and don’t realize it,” says Punke.

Both Punke and the Boone and Crockett Club have followed winding paths to their current spots along the Clark Fork. Born in Torrington, Wyo., the 42-year-old Punke worked in Washington, D.C., as an international trade lawyer for 14 years after graduating from Cornell University Law School in 1989. Along the way, he met Bill Clinton several times and got to fly in Air Force One. Of his formative years, Punke says, “I knew those things were cool at the time, but I probably appreciate them more now.”

He also knew that Washington was not a permanent home for him and his family.

“The closest thing my wife and I had to a prenuptial agreement was that we were going to raise our kids in the West,” he says. “Basically out of desperation I started getting up at 5 a.m. and working on [my first] novel. I worked on that for five years before it was sold, and that ended up being the thing that gave me the courage to try to come out here and write on a full-time basis.”

Finally published in 2003, that novel was The Revenant, a fictionalized account of real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass. Since then Punke has published two histories: Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 and the new book on Grinnell’s fight to save the buffalo.

The Boone and Crockett Club began small and toiled madly out of desperation, too. Founded in 1887 by Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt and originally run out of Roosevelt’s home in New York City, the group formed the first American political coalition that sought to curb the unrestricted killing of wildlife and to preserve the integrity and beauty of America’s wildlands. Early members included outdoor sportsmen, ranchers, natural scientists, military leaders, politicians and artists. Though it seems unthinkable now, they had quite a fight on their hands blocking the construction of a railroad through Yellowstone National Park and keeping poachers from shooting the dwindling buffalo herd inside the park. Punke notes a fair amount of low-grade malfeasance, too. For example, visitors to Yellowstone once delighted in clogging the geysers with lumber and watching the piles of wood soar through the air when the fountains erupted.

The Brooklyn-born Grinnell was among the most vocal and politically savvy leaders in a 50-year battle against the exploitation and recklessness that threatened to ruin Yellowstone and eliminate the last of the buffalo from the planet. As Punke documents it in Last Stand, the plundering of the buffalo is staggering. The best research indicates that when settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, over 30 million buffalo grazed on the Midwestern plains, throughout the southeast, north into Michigan and along the Canadian border—seemingly everywhere but in the New England states. By 1903, only 23 remained, all of them in Yellowstone National Park. Without the likes of Grinnell, buffalo would surely have been extinct.  

According to Punke, Grinnell’s activism was a minor miracle given his upbringing.

“The buffalo being slaughtered is completely consistent with the prevailing political and economic ethic of the day. What is shocking is that someone who grew up in the middle of that as the son of a wealthy stockbroker would come to a different conclusion about what we ought to be doing,” Punke says. “In his youth, Grinnell was an aimless child of privilege. He went to these incredible private schools in New York City. His dad got him into Yale even though he got crappy grades, and then when he got there he screwed around. He had no direction whatsoever.”

In the early 1870s Grinnell had an epiphany while doing field research in the Midwest with Othniel Charles Marsh, a leading paleontologist from Yale. Unearthing fossils with his mentor exposed the lie in the myth of inexhaustibility pervading the American consciousness at the time. Punke stresses the extent to which Grinnell stood apart from most explorers of his day.

“People didn’t understand what extinction was in the 1870s. That wasn’t a concept the way it is today, and yet Grinnell had this experience as a 21-year-old finding dinosaur bones in Nebraska, so he understands that extinction is possible,” Punke says. “Not only did he have a scientific background, he understood that he had to convey what he knew to a broad group of people. He recognized that he needed to form a grassroots movement out of sportsmen and ranchers and that he also needed Washington insiders.”

From the beginning, Last Stand reads like an action novel bolstered by exhaustive first-rate scholarship. Though the mass of data on matters ranging from the Sharps rifle to an arbitrary change in fashion that undermined the beaver pelt industry gives a clear picture of the times, Punke writes history as a quest undertaken by visionaries. Facts abound, but they never clutter the driving narrative. Readers have reason to keep turning pages.

And they’ll find contemporary relevance in the story of the buffalo. The obvious connection, one that Punke wisely never states explicitly, is the link between the nearly extinct buffalo and a world threatened by global warming. Speaking to this connection now, Punke says, “There’s nothing more pernicious than a slow-moving disaster. As a nation we are great at responding to a big crisis such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11. When we’re attacked we rally and fight back. What’s difficult about the buffalo in the 19th century and global warming today is that there’s much more of a slow-motion feel to it.”

Last Stand reminds us, however, that we need not despair the ruin of the planet. As Punke notes, “If Grinnell could save the buffalo at the height of the Gilded Age, then we can do something about global warming.”

Michael Punke reads from and signs copies of Last Stand at Fact & Fiction Thursday, June 14, at 7 PM.

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