Can we restore at least a portion of what was the American Serengeti?
by Allen Best
When driving east on Interstate 70 toward Denver, you will see a sign welcoming you into Jefferson County, “Gateway to the Rockies.” The sign has it backwards. You are, in fact, descending to the Great Plains. The over-its-shoulder sign reflects a common condescension toward the mostly treeless and less vertical prairies.
Dan Flores, in his new and richly detailed book, “American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains,” acknowledges the emptiness that drivers encounter when traveling in the continent’s interior from El Paso, Texas, to Edmonton, Alberta. But it wasn’t always yawn country devoted to large-scale industrialized agriculture, the sweet country air pushed aside by stenches from factory production of animal protein.
In 1843, while sailing up the Missouri River near today’s border of Montana and North Dakota, John James Audubon observed a much more diverse ecosystem populated by bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, and wolves. Flores tells us the Great Plains then also had great herds of bison, pronghorn and wild horses.
Going back further, to the last glacial melt, about 14,000 years ago, there were even more exotic fauna: elephants (mammoths), camels, much larger species of bison, plus the slender but ferocious short-faced bear. There was also a giant species of cat larger than the lions found today in Africa.
In short, the Great Plains was once a very exciting, vital place. Likening it to Africa’s Serengeti of today, Flores makes the argument that this loss of habitat and wildness constitutes a loss to humans, too.
Humans were complicit in the Pleistocene extinctions, although scientists have also pointed to the role of a changing climate. But in the 19th century, aided by new technology for killing, humans rapidly shot, trapped, and poisoned many species nearly to oblivion. From the comfort of the 21st century, these killing sprees look like collective madness.
Flores came to his love of the Great Plains with an academic posting in Texas near Palo Duro Canyon, then continued his explorations in Montana. If this 19th century war on wildlife was broadly understood, Flores provides a sharpened focus with a richly detailed examination of six large species common in the 1840s. His writing is never dull and frequently bites with wit.
Consider pronghorn, which we commonly call antelope. The fleet-footed species with oversized eyes evolved over four million years to flee the fastest of all predators. Their original predators gone, they remained strangely dependent on the great bison herds, following them to crop the plants the shaggy beasts couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. Many believe there were as many pronghorn on the Great Plains as bison.
Today we associate grizzly with the Yellowstone ecosystem and the rugged northern Rockies. In the early 19th century, though, they roamed broadly along the plains, following the rivers eastward.
Flores tells of a trading party led by Jacob Fowler that in November 1821 encountered a grizzly along what is now called the Purgatoire River of southeastern Colorado. The traders shot at the bear, but it snagged one of them climbing a tree, putting the man’s head into its jaws before it was finally dispatched. The man, Lewis Dawson, thought he had gotten lucky, but in fact his skull had been punctured. He lived just a few more days. Driving through the countryside there now, in the vicinity of Rocky Ford and La Junta, it’s hard to imagine the scene.
If that Colorado encounter was a draw, you know how the broader story of humans vs. wildlife turned out. Yet Flores cautions against over-simplification. Bison herds waxed and waned as the climate warmed and cooled over the millennia. The early 19th century’s cooler, wetter climate created a salad bowl of lush grasses that favored larger herds. Then, in the 1850s, a warming and drying climate worked against large herds. Bison herds just prior to the industrial human killing, he says, have been vastly over-estimated.
Flores also disputes the oft-made claim that the U.S. government eliminated buffalo in order to starve Indians into submission. A speech to that effect attributed to General Philip Sheridan in Texas was almost certainly fictionalized, he says. Instead, he points to unrestrained market hunters and the unbridled faith of capitalism for the fate of plains bison, reduced to just 23 by the late 1900s.
Pronghorns nearly became extinct because of this same market failure. “They had evolved on the Great Plains, survived fearsome predators, and lived through the Pleistocene extinctions. Erasing them from America was going to require some efforts,” Flores writes. “Naturally, we were up to the task. As with the extinctions and close calls for so many birds and animals during the free-wheeling period of American history, there were multiple causes for what began to happen to pronghorn.” He goes on to describe homesteading, barbed wire, and, of course market hunters.
In the case of wolves and coyotes, though, the U.S. government did seek to exterminate the species using traps and ever-more-lethal poisons. Wolves were nearly wiped out, but in a fascinating evolutionary adaptation, coyotes survived and actually expanded their habitat across North America. Counter-intuitively, they have become city dwellers, too. Metropolitan Denver, according to a 2015 estimate, has 1,000 coyotes.
Stepping back, Flores pauses to examine contemporary attitudes. “The Great Plains is not, by any standard measure of aesthetics, an admired part of America these days, a loved landscape of our contemporary times the way we love the mountains or the oceans or even the deserts,” he points out. This attitude is also evident in the national parks. The National Park Service was captivated by scenery, he says, not by wildlife. The first set aside on the Great Plains did not occur until the 1990s, at the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, in eastern Montana.
It’s there that Flores sees the best opportunity for recreating a small remnant of this Serengeti. In close proximity are the Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge and Native American lands. The American Prairie Reserve, a non-profit group based in Montana, has been seeking to link the parcels. Paramount among the tasks would be “acquiring private land from ranchers who often are rabidly against the idea of revising the flow of history and despise any thought of reintroducing bison to the plains.” Of course, the group has been coy about just what wildlife it wants to reintroduce to the preserve.
In reading Flores book, I found myself struggling with my own history. Two sets of great-grandparents arrived on the Great Plains of Colorado in the 1880s, not long after the buffalo and wolves had been dispatched and, for that matter, the Native Americans, too. My ancestors ran cattle and sowed their wheat and other seeds. I couldn’t flee that country quick enough, favoring craggy mountains and gentle meadows to sow my own wild oats.
Now, living in the half-way house of mountain and plain that is metropolitan Denver, I have broadened my curiosities and shed some of my snootiness. The Great Plains interest me in a way that they never did when I was growing up there.
We need food, yes, but we also need wildlife. I don’t run sheep or cattle for my living, so I have no personal skin in this argument. But I can’t imagine anybody thinking that Yellowstone or, for that matter, the rest of our national parks would be better and more interesting places if all the wildlife were gone, to reduce problems.
Flores is right. Scenery isn’t enough. We now understand that the absolutes we sought in the late 19th century and early 20th century were unnecessary. In having absolute dominion over our landscapes, we lost some of our own vital existence. This vision of a broader, restored Great Plains ecosystem that he identifies excites me. I hope it happens.