Cedar City’s buffalo parade and the remaining Grand Canyon herd

Cedar City residents were startled to see a herd of buffalo parade through town in 1907. Charles “Buffalo” Jones and his men were trailing them from Lund to their new home on the Kaibab Plateau | Photo courtesy SUU Special Collections, St. George News

FEATURE — While it was common for herders to trail sheep and cattle through Southern Utah’s towns in the days before the automobile, folks in Cedar City were startled at what they saw on a spring day in 1907. Jaws dropped as they watched a herd of buffalo parade down Main Street, prodded on by cowboys on horseback.

The Grand Canyon buffalo herd was introduced to the Kaibab Plateau following President Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906 | Photo courtesy University of Arizona Special Collections, St. George News

The mighty, broad-shouldered beasts uttered low rumblings and grunts, occasionally feinting at the cowboys as they kicked a cloud of dust on their way south.

The buffalo had been shipped by rail from Garden City, Kansas to Lund. From there they traveled in a slow caravan to northern Arizona as part of a federally supported program to introduce buffalo to the Kaibab Plateau. Just one year earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt had created the 600,000-acre Grand Canyon Game Preserve within the larger Grand Canyon Forest Reserve, today part of the Kaibab National Forest.

Hundreds of mountain lions were removed from the area as part of the development of the game preserve. Buffalo are not native to the area, and how they came to be there is a tale of good intentions with mixed results.

The mass slaughter of buffalo in the 19th century remains an American tragedy. Charles “Buffalo” Jones was among those who decimated buffalo herds for sport and profit, but he later came to regret his role and tried to make amends.

He was a colorful character whom Zane Grey profiled in his book, “The Last of the Plainsmen.” In addition to hunting buffalo, Jones joined in the 1893 Oklahoma Land Rush, lassoed mountain lions on the Kaibab Plateau and wrangled musk oxen near the Arctic Circle.

“Buffalo” Jones helped slaughter the buffalo herds of the Great Plains, then helped make amends by establishing herds both in Yellowstone National Park and on the Kaibab Plateau | Photo courtesy of Historical Marker Database, St. George News

Like “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Jones was a showman who loved to regale those who would listen to tales of his exploits — which led one cowboy to say he was “windy as hell.”

As recounted in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The American Buffalo,” Jones recognized the plight of the dwindling number of buffalo in the West and his role in their threatened extinction. In response, Jones advocated the use of Yellowstone National Park as a sanctuary for their preservation.

In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt appointed “Buffalo” Jones as Yellowstone’s first game warden to get the job done. Jones succeeded spectacularly and can rightly be credited with helping establish the herds that tourists enjoy today.

Building on his Yellowstone success and having toured the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with Edwin D. Wooley of Kanab, Jones convinced Roosevelt to create the Grand Canyon Game Preserve and introduce buffalo to the Kaibab Plateau. Roosevelt liked the idea and assigned Jones to make it happen.

But rather than introduce genetically pure buffalo as was done in Yellowstone, Jones used stock from his hybrid herd in Kansas.

Jones got into the buffalo breeding business after seeing thousands of cattle die on the northern plains during the brutal winter of 1886-87. He believed that by cross breeding cattle with buffalo he could create an animal hardy enough to survive brutal winters, yet gentle enough to herd and make a profit from. He called them “cattalo.”

For his cross-bred stock, Jones chose short-horned, thick-coated Scottish Galloway cattle. As a marketing gimmick he called them “Seal Cows,” as their hides were similar to seal pelts which were fashionable and in high demand at the time.

“Buffalo” Jones ran a commercial ranching operation in Kansas on which he raised “cattalo,” a hybrid of buffalo crossed with Scottish Galloway cattle. He was a self-promoter, as shown in this photo which he used to publicize his “cattalo” business | Photo courtesy Lubbock Avalanche Journal, October 1, 2022, St. George News

Ever the entrepreneur, Jones pitched the idea of introducing his hybrid buffalo to populate the Grand Canyon Game Preserve, nominally to save the buffalo but also to turn a profit and create game for hunters in the newly established preserve.

It took a while for Jones to get his ducks in a row, in the spring of 1907 he loaded 75 of his buffalo onto rail cars and headed west. When they reached Lund, the herd began their long trek through Cedar City and on to the Kaibab Plateau where they took to their new home like crows to a cornfield. The herd thrived and grew quickly, another apparent success for preserving the American buffalo.

When Jones died in 1919 from malaria contracted on an African safari, he was a celebrity. “Buffalo Bill” Cody called him “The King of the Cowboys” and Jones’ headquarters in Yellowstone was turned into a museum. He cemented his legacy through his reintroduction of buffalo to Yellowstone, with the herd now numbering more than 4,000.

But his legacy on the Kaibab Plateau is less lustrous. The hybrid buffalo delivered to northern Arizona now number in the hundreds and roam far beyond their original home.

According to the National Parks Traveler:

More than a century after Buffalo Jones’ experiment with cattle and buffalo created some odd-looking animals that eventually found their way onto the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, the park staff is working to reduce the number in the herd.

Wildlife biologists with the Arizona Game & Fish Department and the National Park Service hope to thin down the herd to about 200 by relocating those they can capture and issuing hunting permits for others.

National Park Service map showing the seasonal ranges for the Kaibab Plateau Bison Herd | Image courtesy National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey, St. George News

In the last five years, with the help of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, a few hundred buffalo have been captured and relocated onto Indian reservations in South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The herd is also culled through annual hunts outside the park boundaries. Permits are in high demand with tens of thousands of applicants for a few dozen permits each year. Over the past six years, more than 300 buffalo have been harvested through these public hunts.

There is a footnote to this story. As a young boy, Alva Matheson watched the buffalo herd saunter through Cedar City in 1907. In his memoirs he tells the story of “one rebellious old bull” that got away.

“He didn’t seem to like the canyon walls closing in on him and no number of horsemen could stop him — he wanted to go back home,” according to Matheson.

The bull retraced his trail and when the bull reached Cedar City, little Alva saw him outside their home and called to his mother to see him.

“The old fellow followed his trail back to Lund,” Matheson wrote. “I think he was hoping to buy a ticket or hop a freight back to where he came from.”

As a young boy, Alva Matheson saw the original buffalo herd pass through Cedar City. Later in life he came upon a buffalo skeleton near Veyo that he believed was a bull that had escaped the herd, date not specified | Photo courtesy Memories in FamilySearch.org, St. George News

That was the last Matheson thought of the buffalo until years later, when in 1955 he came across a buffalo skeleton in the hills near Veyo where he was herding sheep.

“It would have stood at least five feet high at the shoulders and not more than four feet at the hips, and the skull would have been tremendous in life but was badly decayed and laid scattered in pieces.”

Matheson believed it was the bull he saw in Cedar City in 1907.

The descendants of the original Buffalo Jones herd still roam on the Kaibab Plateau, but perhaps the remains of one of that original group lie weathered and bleached in the hills of Washington County.

Ed. note: Sources for this article include “Bison in Grand Canyon: The Kaibab Plateau Herd,” a 2023 article on the National Park Service website; “Buffalo Jones and Bison That Don’t Belong at the Grand Canyon” by Andrew Guilliford in The Durango Herald, January 7, 2023; “Border Wars: The Contentious History of Mapping the Grand Canyon” by Roger Clark for the Grand Canyon Trust, Spring 2019; Two podcasts by Gabriel Pietrorazio for KJZZ 91.5 Phoenix, October 15 & 16, 2023; “Cedar City Reflections” by Alva Matheson, Southern Utah University Press, 1974; and the profile of Charles “Buffalo” Jones in Wikipedia.

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