Once Oklahoma was an unspoiled land where hunters of buffalo, elk, antelope, and bear prospered. A person could wander for days across open plains and through wild woods without seeing another human. All that was to change abruptly as more people settled in what became Oklahoma Territory. Herds of buffalo would be replaced by cattle, antelope by sheep, and prairie grasses by wheat and corn. Cities would grow on the wind-swept hills.
Early reports of wilderness Oklahoma give clues about the experience of hunting in that vanished land. When naturalist Thomas Nuttall visited in 1819, he found few white men but plenty of game, and he hunted buffalo and elk along the Illinois River. In the eastern woods white-tailed deer would stand in place and watch as he rode within rifle range. Nuttall was not the first to take advantage of Oklahoma's wilderness fare. American Indians had hunted there for centuries. Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache, all rode through occasionally in search of game. One of the dominant tribes was the Osage, who claimed much of the northeastern corner of Oklahoma.
The Osage were fairly typical of the buffalo-hunting Plains Indians of the nineteenth century. They made two major hunts each year, one running from May until August, another from September into December. The literature of the time commonly described the buffalo hunt itself as a military undertaking. Special leaders were appointed to direct the hunt, and the men of the tribe, mounted on horseback, would swoop down on a herd with practiced precision according to plans laid out by the leaders. To preserve meat, the Indians would cut it into thin strips and lay it across a lattice of branches set above a low fire. Such dried meat could provide food for months. Meat could also be pounded to a pulp, mixed with berries and fat, and packed into skin parfleches. Indians and early settlers considered this mixture, usually called pemmican, very useful, as it could be kept for years.
In 1832 Washington Irving came west so that, as he said in a letter to his brother, he could see "the last of the red men and wild game before those things were pushed beyond the reach of civilized man." He arrived just in time. Where Nuttall had shot elk and buffalo, Irving found farms and plantations. But pristine Oklahoma still existed in places. Riding on horseback in company with two other gentlemen travelers and a platoon of rangers, Irving followed the Arkansas River beyond white settlements, past a large Indian village, and on to the open hunting grounds. Throughout central Oklahoma he found plentiful game almost everywhere he went. He shot elk near present-day Stillwater and encountered bear, buffalo, deer, turkey, and wild horses near future Oklahoma City and Norman.
As white newcomers adapted to the plains, they developed several techniques for hunting buffalo. The most direct was to find a herd and approach it on horseback, at a walk, to avoid alarming the prey. When the rider was within 300 yards, the herd would usually slowly begin moving. By the time the hunter was within 250 yards, the bison would break into a gallop, and the chase was on. Shooting began when the horseman made it into the herd. The sophisticated buffalo hunter preferred a sport in which he could pick a single target and work on it. This put a premium on hunting small herds that would optimally include some six-month-old calves. The hunter would swoop down on them and pick out a single calf for his quarry. The calves could run like the wind, and success in bringing one down was considered true Wild West adventure. In addition, calves were considered the best eating.
Tricks also were developed for taking other game. Elk, for example, could be shot in quantity by taking advantage of the animals' tendency to travel in single file, following a leader. This called for shooting the lead elk. The rest of the herd would then pause until a new leader appeared. The hunter would then shoot that elk, and the herd would stand again. The tremendous quantities of game such as buffalo and elk made hunting an extremely attractive pastime to Oklahoma's early visitors. Irving commented on how bloodthirsty the most cultivated men became when they combined loaded guns with seemingly endless supplies of game. Even so, hunting was not all ease and plenty.
If the nineteenth-century hunter was unfettered by game laws, rangers, and conscience, he was not secure from the specter of an Indian tribe outraged at the loss of a valuable food source. As a result, few white men hunted alone. They usually came in with a company of mounted troopers, not only for protection, but also because most of the territory's earlier hunters were high-ranking officers. Often enough, these military hunting expeditions were justified by a stated military objective.
One popular quarry was the turkey, especially as turkey populations were dense along rivers even into the 1870s. Gen. Phillip Sheridan reported flocks of one thousand to two thousand birds near Fort Cobb, and in 1878 he and some friends entered a roost on the North Canadian River, near present Woodward, and killed scores of the big birds in one night. There were no game laws then, and the philosophy of the time taught that wildlife could not be protected by legislation. There was simply too much country and too few men to police it.
In the spring of 1872 William Blackmore saw buffalo all along the Arkansas River. The following autumn the whole country was whitened, he wrote, by "bleached and bleaching bones." No buffalo were to be seen until deep within Indian Territory. The market hunter had arrived. This hunter was helped in his business by the coming of the railroads. They provided an easy means for getting buffalo hides and tongues to eager eastern markets. Most hunters were "hard cases" from the East and knew little about the plains or about caring for buffalo hides. Five buffalo died for every hide that reached market.
In 1873 merchants engaged in the business and organized the hide trade. A professional hunter, picked for his shooting ability and his knowledge of bison, now led the standard hide party. His accomplices were usually two skinners and a cook, and their goal was to find a herd and make a stand. A stand was achieved by getting within thirty or forty yards of a herd and shooting a buffalo in the heart. It fell in its tracks and died without disturbing the others. In this way the animals could be shot as they fed. One report tells of 112 buffalo killed within a two hundred-yard area in forty-five minutes by a single hunter. Another successful method was to pick off the bison at a river as they came in for water. Between 1872 and 1874 about 4.5 million buffalo were killed. Before the end of the 1870s the great herds vanished.
Their disappearance also marked the end for the gray wolf. The largest canine in North America, the wolf had depended on the herds for food. With the buffalo gone, the wolf turned to livestock, and massive predator-control programs hastened its disappearance from the plains. By the time of the 1889 Land Run into the Unassigned Lands of Oklahoma Territory, only fifty-seven years after Washington Irving pursued bear, turkey, buffalo, and wild horses near present Norman, all these animals were gone. They had given way to farms, ranches, railroads, industry, and the promise of tomorrow.
The Oklahoma Territorial Legislature enacted game and fish laws in 1895, five years after the Organic Act of 1890 created a government. Now, laws prohibited the killing of wild game and insectivorous birds. Quail, prairie chicken, turkey, doves, and plover received special seasons. Local county and township officers enforced the regulations. By 1903 a Game Marketing Act outlawed the selling of game and levied heavy fines on railway and express companies that illegally shipped game. Also in 1903 the Territorial Game and Fish Protection Association was organized to assist in enforcing the law.
In 1909, two years after Oklahoma became a state, the legislature created the State Game Warden's Office, commonly known as the Game and Fish Department (now the Department of Wildlife Conservation). The governor appointed Jude S. Askew as the first state game warden and authorized eight other salaried employees; Askew appointed three hundred deputies around the state. The first license was a combined hunting and fishing permit with a fee structure of $1.25 for residents and $15 for nonresidents. The fees funded the fledgling department. In 1913 the agency disbanded, and the accumulated money was deposited in the State Capitol building fund. Noisy protests from sportsmen forced the office's reinstatement in 1915. In the 1920s the Izaak Walton League of America led a campaign to reorganize the warden's office, and in 1925 the legislature established a three-man Game and Fish Commission. Gov. Martin Trapp appointed Samuel L. Morley, Ernest W. Marland, and N. R. Graham as members. That year, hunting and fishing licenses were separately issued. Other actions included protective regulations for furbearing mammals.
In the 1930s and early 1940s game management techniques became sophisticated and more scientific. A stocking program for ringnecked pheasants, initiated in the 1920s, was stepped up, as was the bobwhite quail management program. In 1945 the Game and Fish Department began its first monthly magazine, Oklahoma Game and Fish News. In 1947 the state game and fish warden officially became director of the Department of Game and Fish. A three-decades-old program of stocking pheasants resulted in the opening of the state's first pheasant season in 1948, with free permits issued for certain northwestern counties.
In 1960 efforts began for establishing several exotic bird species in the state, and the first fall turkey season was held. In the decade of the 1960s the department held the first elk hunt, with forty-two harvested. In 1964 a significant trout-stocking program began, mule deer from Colorado were released in the Glass Mountains, and the first spring turkey season was opened. In 1966 the state held its first antelope season.
The Game and Fish Department first provided hunter safety programs in 1965. Initially offered on a voluntary basis, the course became mandatory in 1987 for all persons born after January 1, 1972. In the 1960s and 1970s the department expanded various hunting seasons, stabilized the deer herd, and introduced new fish species such as the striped bass. Significant progress occurred in the last two decades of the twentieth century. The deer harvest jumped from approximately 14,000 in 1980 to more than 100,000 in 2001. The commission also expanded controlled hunts and initiated the first statewide turkey season. Wildlife management areas, purchased all around Oklahoma, totaled 1.6 million acres of department-managed lands.
At the turn of the twenty-first century hunters realized that only through careful stewardship and conservation, especially of fish and wildlife habitat, will future generations enjoy the bounty of abundant wildlife populations. Although the great herds of bison, antelope, and elk no longer shake the prairies, Oklahomans have fostered thriving core populations of all three species. Bison can be seen at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve at Pawhuska, and at the Pawnee Bill Ranch in Pawnee. Elk are also common among the Wichita Mountains' steep canyons, and a limited number of hunting permits are offered by special drawing each year. Although not found in the same numbers as in the Wichita refuge, elk have been established at several Wildlife Department-owned management areas, including Cookson Hills, Cherokee, and Pushmataha. The Oklahoma Panhandle is home to an expanding antelope herd, and a limited number of special hunting permits are awarded through an annual drawing, with hunting restricted to Cimarron County.
Early Oklahoma conservationists fought to save the last remnants of the state's game animals and fish for future generations. The men who formulated Oklahoma's modern wildlife conservation practices in the 1940s and 1950s emphasized the wise use of outdoor resources. They built a tradition of providing variety and quality in state hunting and fishing.
SEE ALSO: ANTELOPE, BIRDS, BISON, DEEP FORK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, DEER, FISHING, LITTLE RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, MAMMALS, OKLAHOMA BATCAVES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, OPTIMA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, PRAIRIE CHICKENS, PRAIRIE NATIONAL WILDHORSE REFUGE, RECREATION AND ENTERTAINMENT, SALT PLAINS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, TISHOMINGO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: William J. Caire, Jack D. Tyler, Bryan P. Glass, and Michael A. Mares, The Mammals of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989). Washington Irving, Buffalo Hunting in Oklahoma: Extracts from A Tour of the Prairies (Siloam Springs, Ark.: Bar D Press, 1938). James R. Mead and Schuyler Jones, Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains, 1859-1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986). John Morris, ed., Geography of Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977). William Emerson Strong, Canadian River Hunt (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000). George M. Sutton, Oklahoma Birds (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967).
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