By Dr. Kurt Russo, Journey Organizer
The totem pole journey arrives in Bismarck tonight and will spend the next three days on the Great Plains on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The Standing Rock Nation straddles the North/South Dakota borders in the western portions of both states. It has recently been the center of attention with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The dispatches from Standing Rock over the next few days will go into detail of the situation. As a prelude, this dispatch will provide some environmental history of the Great Plains, a bioregion that has undergone significant changes since the arrival of the settlers.
The numbers startle the imagination. Prior to the arrival of the American settlers, 30 million whitetail deer and 15 million pronghorn antelope roamed the Western plains; 400 million black-tailed prairie dogs populated one “dog town” covering vast areas; and 100,000 grizzly bears inhabited every corner of the American West.
The Great Plains was an expanse of grasslands, a unique ecology divided into tall grass and short grass prairies. Native peoples had been hunting bison on the Great Plains for more than 8,000 years, constituting the longest sustained human lifeway in North American history. Some historians place the number of bison at over 60 million animals at the time of European contact. A single herd could number as many as 12 million animals covering 50 square miles. The abundance of game on the Great Plains was such that only on the African veldt in its early settler days has there been anything comparable in recorded history.
This would all change dramatically by the end of the eighteenth century. By that time the total number of bison was estimated at less than 1,000 animals. Speaking of his vision atop the Crazy Mountains the nineteenth century Crow leader Plenty Coups spoke his lament for a changed world: “After this, nothing happened.”
If you count the bison for hides and the antelope for backstraps and the passenger pigeons for target practice, and the decimation of the beaver population, it is conceivable that 500 million creatures died. It is hard to overstate—or even to grasp—the importance of this iconic animal to Native American plains cultures, or the significance of the animal for appreciating the current state and fate of the Great Plains. As a keystone species, their absence had a dramatic effect on the larger ecosystem. The fate of the buffalo was reflected in broader changes in the Great Plains ecosystem and, sadly, with many other species that paid the price—and continue to pay the price—for an irresponsible, unsustainable and, some might say, immoral extraction-based economy.
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, there are now 612 threatened and endangered animal species in North America, including 84 mammal species, 90 species of birds, and 139 species of fish, as well as 746 threatened and endangered plants. Species losses have been significant for the Great Plains grassland, savanna, and shrubland biome, an area that has undergone substantial land conversion from native vegetation to agricultural lands. By late-twentieth century only 4 percent of the pre-settlement tallgrass prairie remained. Overall the North American prairies, one of the most highly altered grasslands in the world, have declined by an average of 79 percent since the early-1800s.