Once upon a time, the Great Plains of the western U.S. resembled the Serengeti of Africa, a vast prairie inhabited by abundant wildlife. Each year, during the wet season, grasslands produce far more new biomass than forests do, per unit of land. The greenery converts sunlight into carbohydrates, nutrients necessary for the existence of animal life in the ecosystem. Thus, the usually sunny plains are a vast array of solar collectors that generate food for the vast array of animal life. Bison meat is highly concentrated solar energy.
Dan Flores is an environmental historian, and he specializes in Big History, which focuses on entire ecosystems, and regards humans as just one group of the many actors on the stage. Each species of plant and animal plays a role in the living drama. In this book, American Serengeti, Flores described the drama of the Great Plains from a perspective that spanned millions of years, going back long before humans. It highlights the sagas of six species.
The notion of “climax state” asserts that ecosystems can achieve enduring balance and stability. Flores doesn’t believe in climax states. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors succeeded in existing for a very long time in a low impact manner. The fact that agriculture emerged independently in multiple locations indicates that the process could sometimes wobble out of balance, and whirl into ecological hurricanes. We gradually expanded into new ecosystems, improved hunting methods, grew in numbers, and began bumping into limits.
Before Siberian hunters discovered America, the Great Plains were home to many species of large mammals, none of which had evolved adaptations for living near packs of aggressive primates with spears, dogs, and fire. Between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago, 32 genera and at least 50 species went extinct. Losers included camels, mammoths, giant ground sloths, horses, steppe lions, dire wolves, long-toothed cats, long-legged hyenas, giant long-horned bison, and many others. In addition to overhunting, it’s likely that intense climate change also played a role in the surge of megafauna extinctions.
Eventually, the species that escaped extinction managed to adapt to the humans, and share the plains for several thousand years. Then, two centuries ago, powerful primate hurricanes whirled in from Europe and launched a devastating war on the Great Plains ecosystem. Flores says that today, “you feel as if you’re standing at the end of an immense line of dominos…”
Pronghorn antelopes evolved from ancestors that emerged 25 million years ago. They are the fastest mammals on the plains. Males can zoom along at 55 mph (88 km/h), and females at 65 to 70 mph (104 to 112 km/h). Pronghorns can run at 90 percent of their top speed for two miles (3.2 km). They can easily outrun today’s wolves and coyotes, only their fawns are vulnerable to predation.
Pronghorns evolved traits to evade a number of speedy predators, all of which blinked out at least 10,000 years ago. They are very well adapted to a reality that no longer exists. Unfortunately, they are unable to leap fences, a fact that has benefitted their exterminators. By 1900, they had declined from at least 15 million to 13,000. Today, there are 700,000.
The coyote story is fascinating. Indians had great respect for them. Coyotes were often tricksters in their folktales — exceptionally clever, but their cleverness often backfired. Along with wolves and jackals, coyotes evolved in America five million years ago. By one million years ago, some wolves and jackals migrated west into Eurasia. Gray wolves returned to America 20,000 years ago, and began bumping into coyotes, leading to friction. Evolution solved this problem by making wolves larger, and coyotes smaller, adjusting them for different niches.
American settlers hated coyotes, leading to decades of extermination campaigns. By inserting strychnine pellets into rotting carcasses, one lad could kill 350 coyotes in ten days — far easier than shooting them. Many millions have been killed, and the U.S. continues to kill 500,000 every year. Efforts at extermination almost always backfire. Apparently it’s impossible to permanently eliminate them.
Coyotes, like humans, have fission-fusion families — they sometimes work in packs, and other times as individuals. This versatility promoted their survival. Wolves are solely pack hunters, an unfortunate limitation. Coyotes are fertile at one year old, and their average litters have 5.7 pups. But when food is abundant, or their numbers are dwindling, they have larger litters. Persecution also inspires them to migrate and colonize new lands. They now range from Alaska to Panama, in all Canadian provinces, and all U.S. states except Hawaii. They’ve learned how to thrive in cities.
Horses, pronghorns, wolves, and coyotes originated in America. The ancestors of horses emerged 57 million years ago. At some point, the horse family discovered Asia, and spread to Europe and Africa. In North America, they were extinct by 10,000 years ago. Spanish settlers later brought them to New Mexico, where many escaped in 1680. They fled into an ecosystem for which evolution had already fine-tuned them, and where extinction had eliminated their primary predators. Paradise!
Given these conditions, they were tremendously successful. One observer noted, “As far as the eye could extend, nothing over the dead level prairie was visible except a dense mass of horses, and the trampling of their hooves sounded like the road of the surf on a rocky coast.”
For Indians, horses provided huge benefits — with hunting, hauling, raiding, and rustling. They gained wealth by capturing wild horses and selling them at white trading centers. A number of tribes abandoned agriculture, moved to the plains, and became bison hunters. Comanches were the dominant tribe. They were eager to trade horses for cool stuff, fully intending to steal their horses back from the palefaces at the first opportunity.
Today, wild horses baffle Americans. They compete for forage with livestock that have market value. Americans are unwilling to consume organic, grass fed, high protein, low fat horse meat — ordinary food in countries including Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Germany, Indonesia, Poland, and China. In the 1800s, pompous Anglo-Americans sneered at the disgusting meat that only low class immigrants would eat. Thus, a cultural taboo evolved. Countless horses ended up in dog food cans. Today, instead of raising native animals fine-tuned for the Great Plains, like horses and bison, we continue to raise animals fine-turned for Europe — a region having a mild, moist climate, and a blend of vegetation optimal for raising cattle and sheep.
Grizzly bears were hammered in the last two centuries. Settlers detested big strong animals that loved having lunch dates with settlers. Five hundred years ago, the entire western half of the U.S. was grizzly country, home to 100,000 bears. Travelers sometimes saw 30 or 40 in a day. By 1900, only a few hundred remained, hiding in the mountains. Today, there are zero bears on the plains, and maybe 1,000 close to national parks.
Giant long-horned bison from Eurasia discovered America about 800,000 years ago (today’s bison are dwarfed). Both bison and pronghorns survived the megafauna extinctions. Since then, both have coevolved. Bison prefer to eat grasses, which encourages the growth of plants that pronghorns like. Pronghorns prefer flowering plants and shrubs, shifting the advantage back to grasses. They don’t compete for the same grub.
Following the megafauna extinctions, bison had few grazing competitors or predators, so their numbers swelled to maybe 20 to 30 million (others say 60). Once upon a time, bison ranged from northwest Canada to Florida. Sometimes a single herd took more than a week to pass. “The buffalo was the essence of ecological adaptation to North America, perfectly suited to the grasslands.” They survived drastic climate changes, and 100 centuries of human hunters. Sadly, it took less than 100 years to reduce them to 1,073 animals by 1886. They stood in the path of progress and civilization.
Before Indians got horses, hunting was far more difficult. Fewer bison were taken, so scarcity was not often experienced. Hunting did not seem to diminish their numbers, and many believed that the animals magically regenerated, the dead were renewed. “The horse cast a dark shadow over the bison herds… no Indian could see that shadow.” Then came the crazy Americans, for whom bison were walking gold pieces, which the magic of the marketplace deposited into the piggy bank.
The ancestors of wolves, coyotes, and dogs originated in America five million years ago. Some wolves migrated into Asia, and spread to Europe and Africa. Following the extinction spasm, a number of large predators left the stage, leaving a huge niche for both bison and wolves. Wolves almost acted like shepherds to herds of bison and other large grazers. They ate maybe four of every ten bison calves. When horses were reintroduced, yummy colts were added to the menu.
As settlers, market hunters, and sportsmen moved west, they killed lots of game. Wolves feasted on the banquet of leftovers. The bison extermination campaign raged from the 1860s to 1880s. As bison were depleted, market hunters turned to elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and deer. Countless millions of animals were slaughtered. Then, the generous settlers began raising delicious wolf chow, dimwitted critters called cattle and sheep. Enjoying 10,000 years of fine dining, wolves may have expanded up to 1.5 million animals. Around 1850, America declared war on wild predators. Wolves were shot, roped, gassed, stomped, strangled, poisoned, and trapped. By 1923, wolves had been erased from the Great Plains.
The book closes with a discussion of recent efforts to rewild the west — remove the fences, and let bison, wolves, and others return to wild freedom. A few projects are underway, and others are being considered. For decades, Americans have been migrating out of the plains. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, nuked many farms. Then came irrigation, extracting fossil water from the Ogallala Aquifer — an adventure in water mining that’s beginning to sing its death song. Dust is returning. Climate change may be the settlers’ last stand. It’s expected to make the plains hotter and drier, maybe a desert.
“Before it was de-buffaloed, de-wolved, and de-grassed, the nineteenth-century Great Plains was one of the marvels of the world,” writes Flores. “It took 13,000 years but the one, singular charismatic megafauna that walked upright did finally succeed in vanquishing, indeed nearly obliterating, all the others and bending the plains to its will.” His book is fascinating, easy to read, short, and sad — an illuminating and uncomfortable look in the mirror.
Flores, Dan, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2016.
See my review of Flores’ earlier book, The Natural West, HERE. YouTube has some Flores videos. In 2010, National Geographic released a gorgeous and informative video titled American Serengeti.