It's Too Late
Endless Grassland Stretching more than 1,000 miles from Illinois west to the Rocky Mountains, and from southern Canada south to Texas, the North American Prairie seemed endless. In the Midwest, tallgrass prairie interspersed with oak trees dominated, and farther west, in a north-to-south band, was an immense shortgrass prairie. Through its center flowed the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, their confluence creating one of the world's greatest rivers. Lining the rivers were hardwood forest swamps from the Mississippi Delta at the Gulf of Mexico north to the Missouri River, where river otters, muskrats, beaver, mink and raccoon abounded. A vast mosaic of wetlands, known as "prairie potholes," dotted the northern Plains states and, during the spring, turned into ponds and marshes, making them perfect breeding areas for millions of waterfowl and shorebirds.
An estimated 50 million American bison (Bison bison) thundered across the prairie in a spectacle rivaling the migration of today's East African wildebeests, and far exceeding them in number. While the passenger pigeon may have been the most numerous bird in Earth's history, the bison is considered the most numerous large mammal to ever have lived on the planet. Coexisting with these bison were Plains tribes of Native Americans — Pawnee, Blackfoot, Crow, Ojibwa, Sioux, Mandan, Comanche and others.
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to travel across the newly acquired Louisiana Territory west to the Pacific to conduct the first natural history survey of the American West. Clark described the prairie near the Missouri River as "rich, covered with grass from 5 to 8 feet high, interspersed with copses of hazel, plums, currents, …raspberries and grapes of different kinds" (Peck 1990). Lewis's journal entry records his awe of the landscape: "Nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country. As we passed on, it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never end."
Throughout their travels they saw "immense herds of buffalo, deer, elk and antelopes," some "so gentle that we pass near them without appearing to excite any alarm among them" (Peck 1990). Wolves and foxes were common, along with animals they had never seen before — pronghorn antelope, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, coyotes, grizzly bears and many beautiful prairie birds (Peck 1990). One of the purposes of their journey was to assess the marketable potential of the wildlife, especially furbearers. Their observations paved the way for the fur trade and slaughter of wildlife that effectively eliminated large mammals from the Great Plains by the end of the century.
A visual record of the original prairie was made by various artists, the most famous of which was George Catlin, whose magnificent portraits of the Native Americans, American bison and landscapes preserve them for posterity. It was Catlin who proposed this wild land be protected:
Nature has nowhere presented more beautiful and lovely scenes, than those of the vast prairies of the West; and of man and beast, no nobler specimens than those who inhabit them—the Indian and the buffalo—joint and original tenants of the soil . . . And what a splendid contemplation too, when one imagines them as they might in future be seen (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildlife, in a magnificent park . . . A nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild freshness of their nature's beauty (Peck 1990).
The world's first national park, Yellowstone National Park, was set aside in 1872, protecting some 2 million acres of mixed grassland and forest and the last wild bison in Montana and Wyoming, but Native Americans were excluded. The huge prairie park, as envisioned by Catlin in the central part of the continent, has not been established. It would have been a biological treasure for future generations. A tallgrass prairie national park was established in the 1990s, and perhaps in the future, a large national park will preserve portions of the once vast shortgrass prairie.
The US government encouraged the slaughter of bison as part of a deliberate campaign to vanquish the Plains tribes by removing their means of subsistence; the slaughter was also a free‑for‑all hunting spree by crews working on the transcontinental railroad after 1830 (Allen 1942). Thousands of bison were killed just for their tongues, which were considered a delicacy. The commercialization of the bison sealed its fate. In 1840, the American Fur Company sent 67,000 robes of bison hides to St. Louis, a fur trading center (Allen 1942). In the upper Missouri country, 250 thousand bison were killed annually until the 1870s; during this decade, just as in the case of the passenger pigeon, the slaughters turned the tide for the species (Allen 1942).
With the completion of the railroad, the great herd became split in half, and migrations that once took them from Montana to Texas were ended by a shooting spree lasting until the late 1880s (Allen 1942). In Dec. 1877 and Jan. 1878, the "last great slaughter" took place on the isolated southern herd of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas; 100 thousand hides were taken by an army of hunters, wiping out this herd (Allen 1942).
Only the protection of two small herds in Yellowstone National Park and Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, totaling about 541 individual bison, prevented the extinction of the species (Allen 1942). Even the 300 bison in Yellowstone were nearly killed off by poachers between 1890 and 1893; 270 animals were shot illegally, leaving only 30 in the park (Hornaday 1913). These few wild bison stayed as far as possible from tourist routes, and by 1912 the herd had grown to 49 (Hornaday 1913). Since then, herds have been re‑established in several parks in the West. There are now more than 150 thousand bison, but the majority is ranched animals, bred for docility. Even these represent a tiny fraction of their former numbers. Pure strains of American bison can be found only in the herds of Yellowstone and Wood Buffalo National Parks.
Other grassland wildlife was slaughtered for the meat trade. Among the millions of shorebirds that migrated through the Great Plains and bred there was a mousy brown, medium‑sized bird known as the Eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis). These birds were known to many market hunters as "prairie pigeons" or "doughbirds" because of the thick layer of fat the bird added before migration (Ehrlich et al. 1992). This bird became the prairie equivalent of the passenger pigeon ‒ an ominous comparison that signaled its ultimate fate. Eskimo curlews were once the second most numerous species of wading bird in North America — numbering in the hundreds of thousands, possibly in the millions. Their destruction was so rapid that nesting and breeding areas were never fully documented. Only a few nests were found in arctic prairies of northwestern Canada between the Mackenzie and the Coppermine Rivers (Greenway 1967), but no one knew whether this was their prime nesting area. Their breeding behavior, number of eggs and chicks and related information remain undocumented.
Eskimo curlews flew in compact flocks and, when landing to rest and feed, were extremely tame and approachable. They were known to eat berries and Rocky Mountain grasshoppers (Melanoplus spretus) in burnt areas of prairie grass (BI 2000). This insect later became extinct, and prairies were plowed into agricultural fields (BI 2000). Eskimo curlews’ fall migration along the Atlantic coast through Labrador took them 8,000 miles to winter on the pampas of Argentina, southern Brazil and Chile (BI 2000). They were heavily hunted along the way. On one migration in 1872, three men in Cape Cod and Nantucket killed $300 worth of curlews they sold for 6 cents per bird [5,000 birds] to local meat markets (Hornocker 1913). In the spring, the birds would return through Central America and the Great Plains (Hayman et al. 1986). During the spring migration, they again became targets for the hunters. If a flock was shot at, the birds would fly only a short way before landing again, and they often returned to the same spot, resulting in the slaughter of entire flocks (Schreiber et al. 1989). The meat market hunters could fire a single shot that would bring down dozens of Eskimo curlews (Peck 1990). This hunting endangered them (Ehrlich et al. 1992) and, in spite of a ban on hunting in 1916, no recovery took place (BI 2000).
Their wintering habitat had been plowed as well, beginning in the late 19th century when their pampas in Argentina were used to produce export crops for Russia (Schreiber et al. 1989). Their populations plummeted from loss of habitat and unrestricted hunting, and fewer and fewer curlews managed to reach their northern breeding grounds. By the turn of the century, Eskimo curlews had become extremely rare. None has been seen in South America since 1939 (BI 2000). Several birds were shot in Barbados on their southern migration in 1964, and during the 1980s through 1996, various unconfirmed sightings were made (BI 2000). There is little hope that the Eskimo curlew survives.
Dominant among all the prairie predators, the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) towered more than 10 feet tall when standing upright. Very common on the prairie, these bears ranged over most of western North America, from the Arctic Circle to northern Mexico. They were common in many types of grassland. All the subspecies except Ursus arctos horribilis became extinct south of Canada. In spite of its great strength and intelligence, in addition to the difficulty explorers and settlers had in killing it, these great bears were hunted to near extinction. Lacking cover in most of the Great Plains, the bears made large targets as they foraged for their primarily vegetarian diet, and were eliminated here first. Hunters made expeditions to kill these animals, and wrote articles and memoirs of their hunting prowess as they eliminated grizzly bears from one area after another. South of Alaska, only Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park harbored grizzly bears by the 1940s (Allen 1942).
Fur trapping intensified in the 19th century, with professional trappers combing the countryside, setting leghold traps and spreading poison to kill the most valuable furbearers such as beaver and river otter. Within a short time, both these animals had disappeared from large parts of the country, including most of the Midwest. The American beaver (Castor canadensis) is a keystone species in aquatic environments, creating habitat for otters and other wildlife with their dams. In fact, the range of the river otter in North America nearly coincides with that of the beaver. Trappers killed beavers in their lodges and dynamited dams to scare them into the open until these once common rodents became rare in many parts of the country. Their fur was highly valued and used in the manufacturing of top hats in England and Europe. The relentless trapping wiped these animals out throughout much of the country, and the beaver ponds that once dotted the landscape disappeared, greatly altering ecosystems for the worse. Otter fur was even more valuable because of its durability and waterproof qualities, and these animals, which had never been abundant, disappeared from two-thirds of their original range south of Canada (Nilsson 1985). River otters play an important role in aquatic ecosystems by culling overpopulated fish populations.
Other predators, such as the gray wolf, the kit (Vulpes macrotis) and the swift fox (Vulpes velox), were nearly eliminated from the United States south of Alaska. Fur trapping was followed by persecution in the form of predator control programs to benefit livestock ranchers. The gray wolves of the prairie were often white or pale gray and were entirely eliminated here (see Persecution and Hunting chapter).
The fleetest animal in North America nearly became extinct. The pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), a species found only on this continent, is not a typical antelope, but the last survivor of a family of ungulates long extinct. Once abundant throughout the Great Plains and in the deserts of the Southwest and Mexico, they may have numbered as many as 40 million animals prior to European settlement (Peters and Lovejoy 1990). Pronghorns travel in herds able to "fairly fly over the ground," in the words of Glover Allen (1942), when fleeing predators. Their natural curiosity, an urge to investigate any unfamiliar object, may have contributed to their near‑extinction. One hunter told of luring the pronghorns within gunshot by donning a white sheet and approaching them on all fours (Allen 1942). George Catlin painted natives luring them close by waving a feather on a stick.
By the turn of the century, so many pronghorn had been shot by settlers and meat hunters that the species was reduced to endangered status (Allen 1942). William T. Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park and a prominent conservationist who had saved the American bison from extinction in the early part of the century, predicted in 1913: "The Prong‑horned Antelope, unique and wonderful, will be one of the first species of North American big game to become totally extinct. We may see this come to pass within twenty years. They cannot be bred in protection, save in very large fenced ranges. They are delicate, capricious and easily upset. They die . . . at the drop of a hat" (Hornaday 1913). Fortunately, his prediction did not come to pass, and total legal protection of the last pronghorns saved the species from extinction. Yellowstone National Park was crucial to the species' survival, and the bison’s as well, by protecting remnant herds. These herds provided the stock from which pronghorns were reintroduced to areas where they had been eliminated (Allen 1942). Today, they are fairly common in the western states of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado and found in smaller numbers in other parts of the West (see Grasslands, Shrublands and Deserts chapter for more on this species).
Another victim of the hunting slaughters of the 19th century was the Badlands bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis auduboni), once numerous in the rugged hill country of the upper Missouri and Little Missouri Rivers in North and South Dakota and parts of Nebraska (Allen 1942). Weighing about 344 pounds, the males had massive curved horns that trophy hunters sought. While they grazed on the prairie near the high buttes, they were ambushed by hunters who cut off their escape. Even President Theodore Roosevelt contributed to their extinction by hunting them in the early 1880s (Allen 1942). The last record of this grayish brown sheep in North Dakota was an old ram killed about 1905, and the dates of extinction of the South Dakota and Nebraska populations are unknown (Allen 1942). Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, another race of this species, have been reintroduced into the South Dakota Badlands.
Prairie streams and clear‑flowing rivers provided habitat for several unique species of fish. The harelip sucker (Lagochila laura), whose downturned mouth had a large disk with which it fed on the stream bottoms, became extinct in 1893 when grasslands were plowed and streamsides disturbed; the water became turbid and muddy, causing the fish to literally asphyxiate in the silt‑laden water (Day 1981).
Today, the tallgrass prairies have become wheat and corn fields, crisscrossed by highways, and dotted with towns and cities. More than 90 percent of the original prairies are gone (Peters and Lovejoy 1990). Even in the few areas where native grasses were not plowed under, diversity of grass species has declined from 200 to 30 species in most areas because of heavy livestock grazing (Peck 1990). Tallgrass prairie reserves have been established in Wisconsin, Kansas and Oklahoma. In the latter state, a herd of 300 bison was released in the early 1990s in virgin tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma by The Nature Conservancy after an absence of more than 100 years. Many National Grasslands were established in the range of the shortgrass prairie, primarily for livestock, but after many decades of grazing, rodent and predator control, this land bears little resemblance to the original prairie (see Grasslands, Shrublands and Deserts chapter).