10 May 2018

Last Stand, by Michael Punke

Posted by Callan Bentley

A reader of this blog recently recommended Michael Punke’s Last Stand. I thoroughly enjoyed his novel The Revenant, and so last week I started the audiobook version of the nonfictional Last Stand (2007). Last Stand is subtitled “George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West.” Prior to reading it, I knew little of Grinnell, save that he was a conservationist, and that he was the namesake of the Grinnell Formation and Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana (one of my favorite places on this planet). The book is simultaneously a biography of Grinnell but also an exploration of the national saga that brought U.S. bison (“buffalo”) numbers down to ~230 at one point, before being restored. This single species’ near-extirpation was a significant catalyst for the conservation movement as a whole, helping nucleate a conservation lobby in Washington that helped counter rapacious policies advanced by the railroad industry. It also took some serious convincing to get Senators and Congressional representatives to value the lives of bison sufficiently that they punished those who poached them from the newly-created Yellowstone National Park. Punke lays out the case fairly compellingly: if not for Grinnell’s passion and grit, there would be no U.S. bison today. Not only that, but “America’s best idea” (the preservation of park land) might have been stillborn if not for Grinnell’s advocacy on behalf of law enforcement in the park. Regulations needed to carry weight, and park authorities had to be able to arrest people and send them to jail for their wanton slaughter of the park’s wildlife.

Grinnell was tied to many notable individuals from history. He was taught as a boy by Lucy Audubon, the widow of renowned ornithologist and painter John James Audubon. At Yale, he was mentored by Othniel C. Marsh and first went west on an expedition in search of dinosaur remains with Marsh (Punke never mentions the “Bone Wars,” by the way), and returned the following year to participate in the last great hunt of the “buffalo” with the Pawnee tribe. He returned on another expedition to the west under the command of the egomaniacal George Custer, but declined a follow-up trip that ended up leading Custer to his death at Little Big Horn. Grinnell was the geologist who accompanied the Ludlow expedition in 1875 to survey the newly-established Yellowstone National Park, where he viewed firsthand the extraordinary anthropogenic pressure on the dwindling reserves of bison there. Upon earning his PhD, Grinnell assumed the editorship of Forest and Stream magazine, which he used as his platform to promote conservation measures and policy and a new environmental ethos. It was his work on the magazine that brought him into contact with young Theodore Roosevelt, and together the two would found the Boone and Crockett Club, which was another instrument that exerted pressure on Congress to enact conservation measures. Late in life, he discovered “the St. Mary region” and advocated for it too to be set aside. He won that battle too, and today we can all go to Glacier National Park and be thankful for his success.

Punke writes with authority and economy. This is an excellent summary of an important individual and an important story in the history of the American continent. Recommended.