Can predators save their prey from extinction? Yes, this lively book instructs, if they’re guided by a proper teacher.
The teacher, in callow George Grinnell’s case, was none other than Lucy Audubon, widow of the famed naturalist and artist, who ran a free-spirited school for the children of New York’s upper crust. Montana-based writer Punke’s (Fire and Brimstone, 2006, etc.) account opens as a rather slow-moving portrait of the gilded proto–Gilded Age, which Grinnell entered as a child of privilege, the son of a member of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s inner circle. That account gathers steam when Grinnell, after getting through Yale with much difficulty, finds a place on the scientific team of pioneering paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh and wanders west to gather dinosaur bones and—this being 1870—to shoot bison, whose herds were still big enough to halt their westward train. Audubon’s core philosophy, a blend of self-denial and delayed gratification, “ran directly counter to a core tenet of Gilded Age and robber baron belief,” writes Punke, namely “the ‘myth of inexhaustibility.’” The Great Plains were rapidly being emptied of bison, and Grinnell, though an avid hunter, recognized that something had to be done to stem the flow of blood. Soon he would use his skills as a writer and prairie diplomat to edit Forest and Stream magazine, mounting an early and influential attack on commercial hunting and, perhaps surprisingly, on “the strategy of killing the buffalo as a means of subjugating the Indians.” Punke does solid work in recounting Grinnell’s varied career as a writer, activist (he founded both the Audubon Society and, with Theodore Roosevelt, the Boone and Crockett Club) and environmentalist, but the heart of this book and its best part is the tale of how that career was put to use saving the bison from extinction—a decision that could have gone the other way in an instant.
“One person can make a difference, indeed all the difference,” Punke writes in closing. Through Grinnell, he makes a powerful case.