|Zane Grey, the acclaimed western novelist, provided the most complete first-hand account of the attempted deer drive. His tale, although accepted largely as fiction, resulted from the novelist's direct participation in the actual planning of the drive and corresponded closely with reports from official participants in the event. One such official, M. E. Musgrave, leader of predatory animal control for the Biological Survey, recounted how men began to gather in a camp on the east side of the Kaibab Plateau on December 12, 1924. Over the next few days, it became apparent to Musgrave and others that the drive would be impossible. Several inches of snow had already fallen; the terrain was extremely rough; the crew lacked sufficient "manpower;" the deer seemed skittish; and George McCormick showed a complete lack of organization. The Biological Survey leader later reflected that with enough men they might have succeeded in driving the deer from one part of the range to another. Realistically, however, the attempt to drive them over a narrow trail or into any place where they would be crowded would prove impossible. Attempting the impossible, then, the men found that the deer ran and jumped right past them, either on foot or on horseback. Musgrave concluded, therefore, that shooting the deer in congested areas would be "one of the best possible solutions."||
Grey was on the scene both to witness the event for use in his next western
novel and to secure movie footage to accompany the story. The narrative,
first published serially in Country Gentleman in 1925 and titled The Deer
Stalker, became the unofficial source of information on the failed drive.20
Grey's fictional account, however imaginative, is firmly grounded in the
actual events of 1924 on the Kaibab. His main character, Thad Eburne, represents
an amalgam of the young foresters on Buckskin Mountain. Grey also infuses
an extra dose of conservation ideals in this character, enough to make the
fictional forester unpopular with other Forest Service officers in the story.
These ideals undoubtedly reflect Grey's own feelings toward the wildlife
of Arizona and the West. Eburne becomes a hero in the story by rescuing
a damsel in distress, avoiding the pitfalls created by political tensions
between government agencies, and correctly predicting the ultimate failure
of the deer drive. Another character, Jim Evans, fills the role of real-life
lion hunter Uncle Jim Owens. Grey knew Owens personally from many trips
through Arizona, beginning back in the days when Uncle Jim and Buffalo Jones
began their bison ranch in Houserock Valley. These events play in the background
of The Deer Stalker. Evans declares that humans have upset the balance of
nature by "killin' off the varmints, specially the cougars." The
fictional hunter continues, "These heah deer ain't had nothin' to check
their overbreedin' an' inbreedin'." The hero Eburne agrees whole-heartedly,
as does Zane Grey. A character named Bill McKay represents George McCormick
as the man who came up with the deer drive idea. McKay convinces the governor
of the feasibility of driving the deer off Buckskin Mountain. The governor
is "agin' the shootin' of deer" and dislikes the federal agencies
arguing over his state's wildlife. Eburne pitches the idea to the Forest
Service with considerable conviction and surprising success. In the story,
most of his colleagues are "favorable disposed" to the proposition.
Grey explains, "They spoke of it as preposterous, yet undoubtedly were
intrigued by the originality, the audacity of the idea."
In Grey's novel, as was the case in real life, there is a desperation to see the situation resolved before winter. The Investigating Committee -- Grey quotes directly from their final report in the book -- did not offer solutions but created an atmosphere of urgency. The western novelist adds to the suspense by focusing attention on a large cattle company (ostensibly the Grand Canyon Cattle Company), which had forced smaller operations out of the area but subsequently had to remove its own stock from Buckskin Mountain when quality grazing range became scarce. In the story, greedy ranchers want the deer killed to make room for more cattle. They oppose the deer drive, and Eburne suspects that the ranchers are actively undermining his own and McKay's efforts to organize the event. These suspicions go unproven in the book, and there was no corresponding evidence of a conspiracy in actual fact. Grey's notorious distaste for the Mormon ranchers of southern Utah undoubtedly led him to sensationalize that drama. The feature of the controversy that Grey captures best is how the urgency of getting deer off of Buckskin made otherwise unlikely proposals appealing, for ranchers, foresters, and conservationists alike.
The idea that deer could be trapped and shipped by truck or railway to other parts of the region or even across the country intrigued many bystanders as a particularly humane solution. In Grey's book, however, the unpleasant details of terrified deer captured in small traps points out the gruesome reality of such efforts. Of trapped adult deer, more die of accidental, self-inflicted injuries than survive to reach a new home on distant ranges. Eburne repeatedly lobbies for the deer drive on the grounds that trapping is much more dangerous to the deer. Killing the deer outright is equally abhorrent to the hero. The thought of hunting on Buckskin Mountain makes Eburne "feel so helpless and hopeless that I became almost physically ill." He compares it to the kind of legalized murder only a government-authorized army can perform during wartime. When hunting begins, as described by Grey, the hero is caught in a bind. He championed the governor's opposition to the hunt, but his duty to the Forest Service requires him to prevent the state from arresting hunters. The operation had been planned in secret, to catch the state off-guard -- an accurate portrayal of exactly what had happened in November 1924.
After the substantial failure of the hunt and the unresolved legality of the state's arrests, the deer drive seemed to be the only option left to get the deer off of the mountain before winter. In the book, Grey describes numerous delays in obtaining funds for the operation. Some of those funds were to come from a motion picture company that hopes to film the event. In actual events, that motion picture company, owned by Jesse L. Lasky formerly of Paramount Pictures, responded to Grey's appeal for a contract that would promote his book. The delays make skeptics of the drive even more pessimistic. McKay experiences difficulty moving supplies from Flagstaff to the North Rim. Grey adds drama by repeatedly suggesting that the cattle men, who would rather see the deer killed than driven, are behind these logistical problems. Once the deer drivers are assembled, they find the animals surprisingly scarce and skittish, possibly the result of more agitation by uncooperative ranchers. Grey tells of reports that a few men heard gunshots over the previous few days, which apparently made the deer even more wary.
When the drive finally commences, Grey recounts with great climactic flair, the hero Eburne has resigned from the Forest Service to take a more active part in the drive. A first attempt at keeping the deer in front of a line of men on foot and on horseback proves that the deer will trot unconcernedly along, then jump through even the smallest opening. In larger groups, the deer make like a stampede, reverse directions, and soon disappear into the forest behind the men. A second attempt to drive the deer a day later coincides with the winter's first blizzard. The men are blinded by the snow and frozen by the wind. Worst of all, the motion picture company fails to get a single frame of the deer. Grey's hopes for the drive are dashed. In his book, the denouement involves only a happy ending for Eburne, who finds himself unhindered by his Forest Service job and is able to go to work for the wealthy woman from New York who buys a ranch near Flagstaff and marries him.
Grey's repeated comments in the book about the balance of nature and the problems caused by removing cougars reflected his real-life insistence that the Forest Service had mismanaged the preserve by killing the predatory animals. The author told Biological Survey predatory animal leader Musgrave in 1924 that he had taken the matter up with the federal government years earlier. According to Musgrave, "[Grey] recommended that they allow the lions to increase in order to hold a balance of nature." This was a dangerous idea for a government predatory animal hunter to consider because there would be no direct control over the deer herd. Musgrave wrote that "if the lions were allowed to increase and anything should happen to a part of the deer [the lions] would practically exterminate them before the lions could be gotten under control." Musgrave remained committed to the Biological Survey's policy on predatory animals. He concluded, "We also explained to [Grey] that it would be much better for people to be allowed to eat the meat of excess deer rather than to feed mountain lions."
Grey used the plight of the Kaibab deer to suggest to the broader public the potential role of mountain lions in the balance of nature. He received no satisfaction from the Biological Survey, so he wrote an article that appeared on the front page of the Arizona Republican. There, Grey recalled his advice to the government a full fifteen years earlier, that mountain lions not be exterminated. He added, "It is a fact that man cannot destroy the balance of Nature without dire results." He concluded, "This whole matter of the deer situation on Buckskin Mountain proves how futile it is for men to interfere with the laws of Nature."
Last updated: September 19, 2002; Created: 20 April 2001.