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American Buffalo

An in-depth look at the animal that was our national symbol.

By Larry Sears / January 12, 2009



From the beginning of Steven Rinella’s fascinating new book, American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, I knew he was going to be writing about hunting one of these magnificent creatures. And I was very uncomfortable with that awareness.

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That discomfort comes from two very different life experiences.

First, there’s my childhood in New England. On the first day of deer-hunting season, men eager to get licenses to kill would greet my mother, the local town clerk, in the predawn hours of the morning. I remember viewing them with a mixture of dismay and incredulity. I knew they were out to shoot a defenseless deer – but I also knew that some extra venison might later reach my dinner table.

The other is a more recent experience. On a trip to Elk Island National Park on the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta, a friend had taken me for a drive around the park. As we were leaving we spotted a magnificent herd of buffalo bedding down for the night.

It was a breathtaking sight.

So I found myself hoping Rinella would not succeed in his quest – and worried that reading this book would be a struggle for me.

But fortunately Rinella is aware of the contradictory feelings that we Americans have about hunting this animal. What he has written, I am pleased to report, is a serious yet often ­self-deprecating narrative about one man’s drive to comprehend everything buffalo and bison.

“American Buffalo” brings together a full range of scholarship, from the historical to the geological and biological, and marries it to the details of Rinella’s (legal) 2005 Alaskan wilderness hunt for one such beast.

Rinella is a correspondent for Outside magazine. His interest in the buffalo began on an elk hunting trip in Montana in 1999. While traipsing through the woods, he and his brother Matt stumbled across a buffalo skull nearly buried in the ground – a discovery that ultimately led Rinella to write this book.

Among the facts in “American Buffalo”:

•There are 18 states with a town or city named Buffalo, though the largest, in New York State, “never had a population of wild buffalo living in its vicinity.”

•Animals from singer/songwriter Neil Young’s private herd populated Kevin Costner’s 1990 film, “Dances with Wolves.”

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