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for people who care about the West

In praise of prey

 

American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon
Steven Rinella
288 pages, softcover: $24.95.
Spiegel & Grau, 2008.

Steven Rinella is a hunter with complex feelings about his prey. The Michigander-turned-Montanan-turned-Alaskan spends about half of his new book near-breathlessly extolling the virtues of the bison: its superbly adapted physiology, its prominent role in American history, its unlikely rebound from the edge of extinction. And then, of course, he spends the other half trying to shoot one.

The incongruity isn't lost on Rinella. On the contrary, American Buffalo takes time to contemplate the fuzzy and overlapping spaces between revering an animal and relying on it, and between relying on it and exploiting it. When Rinella draws a rare tag to hunt bison in Alaska, it's the culmination of a buffalo fetish he's nursed since unearthing a half-decomposed skull nearly a decade ago. For the author, bringing down a buffer means participating in a ritual shared by every generation of New World inhabitants. As he writes about a snack of fried bison fat, "You can say all you want about Coca-Cola and hot dogs and apple pie, but this is the real original American meal right here."

The book is natural history wrapped in the hide of a personal quest. Rinella weaves the story of the American bison in and out of episodes from his slightly hair-raising hunt. He explains how the animal emerged from the Ice Age as the last megafauna standing, only to claim as its prize "humanity's never-ending attention, which was ultimately a bittersweet reward."

As Rinella hopscotches through 15,000 years of human-bison interaction, he exposes a few myths. His description of indigenous hunting techniques tempers the popular notion of American First Peoples as seraphic land stewards, particularly when he examines buffalo jumps, where tribes ran entire herds off cliffs. Another segment reminds readers that the iconic beast on the "buffalo nickel" was teetering on the edge of extinction when the coin was minted, and that its model was a sad old bull languishing in a New York City zoo.

Throughout both the hunting escapades and the research-driven asides, Rinella comes across as a sort of warrior-poet in Carhartts, the kind of guy who can wax romantic about a bison's powerful stride even while he's observing it through the scope of his rifle. It's interesting to watch him coo over a frolicking bison calf, then use the same bright prose and tone of wonder to describe the carnage of a buffalo jump. This voice, falling squarely between the sentimental cow-hugger and the camo-clad wilderness tough, is likely to resound with readers who might not ordinarily dig natural history. And really, doesn't a wildlife biology lesson pack more punch when it's delivered by a guy elbow-deep in intestines?

Rinella deftly avoids the worst clichés of the genre, the "proud this" and "noble that" ponderousness that can make wildlife writing such a bore. His observations are funny and even a little hip, as much Chuck Klosterman as Ernest Thompson Seton. He summons scenes from Star Wars to explain the frontier habit of crawling into fresh carcasses for warmth, and compares grubby, long-haired 19th-century hide-hunters to blissed-out '60s flower children. When Rinella goes to extremes in his search for bison knowledge -- hopping county-fair fences to glimpse a white buffalo or flying to England for DNA testing on his prized skull -- he feels like "an oddball variant of those folks who spend their time and money trying to prove that they are descended from European royalty."

Readers looking for an analysis of contemporary management issues won't find it here, just some fleeting (and critical) comments about modern-day canned hunts and private herds. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of the brucellosis debate surrounding Yellowstone's bison, one of the continent's last genetically pure herds. In fairness, American Buffalo was already in its final publication stages when that debate reached fever pitch last winter, after nearly 1,500 bison were shipped to slaughter after wandering outside the park's boundary.

But it's voices like Rinella's -- hyperaware of the bison's symbolic value, yet clear-eyed in the face of fairly gruesome realities -- that often seem to be missing in debates over bison in Yellowstone and elsewhere. Conser-vationists, ranchers, tribal leaders and wildlife managers could do worse than emulate Rinella's thoughtful and measured approach.