The Corps of Discovery left us a blueprint for a wild West.
By Todd Wilkinson and Paul Rauber
When Thomas Jefferson sent young Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery to survey the lands beyond the Mississippi, the West was terra incognita. Some believed the explorers would encounter mountains of salt, woolly mammoths, seven-foot beavers, or Welsh-speaking Indians. Jefferson's aims for the expedition were partly political (the United States having only recently acquired the territory from a cash-strapped Napoleon Bonaparte), partly practical (to see if one could get to the Pacific by boat), but also scientific: He wanted to know just what was out there.
Lewis and Clark were a few millennia too late for Pleistocene megafauna, but they were privileged to witness a glorious, diverse ecosystem in full flower. "This scenery already rich, pleasing and beautiful," Lewis wrote near the White River in South Dakota on September 17, 1804, "was still farther hightened by immence herds of buffaloe, deer elk and antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains. I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of buffaloe which could be compre[hend]ed at one view to amount to 3,000."
Within a very few years, it would all be swept away. The destruction came in five epic waves: the near eradication of the North American bison; the plowing under of native grasslands
for crop cultivation; the decimation of wolves, bears, beavers, and other fur-bearing animals by trappers and bounty hunters; the advent of industrial logging; and the collapse of the great salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest caused by commercial fishing, dams, and development.
No sooner had Lewis and Clark embarked in the spring of 1804 than they began writing what were to become epitaphs. When they crossed the Kansas River, Clark described encountering a large flock of "Parrot queets," now thought to be the handsome, bright green and yellow Carolina parakeet, the last of which died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. On July 5, 1806, Lewis noted "a great number of pigeons breeding in this part of the mountains." Seven years later, John James Audubon claimed to have beheld over Kentucky a flock of passenger pigeons a mile wide that took three days to pass. They flew at the rate, he calculated, of more
than 300 million birds per hour; the storm of their flapping wings was said to be heard six miles away. In 1914, the last passenger pigeon (named Martha) passed away, also at the Cincinnati Zoo.
That such numbers could dwindle to nothing so swiftly is a harsh lesson in population dynamics. Equally remarkable is that most species have hung on. Some are still in great peril, while others have staged astonishing comebacks. The key is habitat: Restore it, and life returns.
But where is the blueprint? Thanks to Jefferson's passion for natural science, Lewis and Clark left us with a description of "the soil and face of the country, it's growth and vegetable productions," as Jefferson put it, as well as "the animals of the country generally, and especially those not known in the U.S." With their careful, detailed accounts of 178 plants and 122 animals, Lewis and Clark gave us a guide to assessing-and restoring-ecological health.
Before white occupation of North America, bison had ranged throughout the country, including the eastern seaboard, numbering 30 million to 60 million. Hardy explorers, scientists, and artists who came west in the decades after Lewis and Clark told of riding through bison herds for days. These herbivores literally shaped the short-grass prairie, along with prairie dogs, pronghorn, elk, and a host of carnivores. U.S. agriculture on the plains is still profiting from aeons of their fertile dung.
The era of the buffalo came to an end with the introduction of the gun and the railroad. Buffalo hunters swarmed in Lewis and Clark's wake, shipping hundreds of thousands of hides to eastern tanneries each year and leaving the plains littered with rotting flesh. (Later the bones were gathered and sold to fertilizer companies.) Railroads held buffalo-killing excursions, while some politicians advocated the extermination of the bison as a means to subdue the Plains Indian tribes by destroying their major food source. By the end of the century that began with Lewis and Clark's voyage, only a few hundred bison remained.
From this handful, bison numbers have increased to some 300,000, the vast majority of which are raised for market. Wild herds are puny compared with those of the past: The 3,000 that Clark counted in South Dakota is greater than the total number in Yellowstone National Park, where the remnant population was given refuge when the park was created in 1872. Yellowstone numbers used to be significantly higher, but that was before 1997 when Montana officials killed more than a thousand bison that had wandered beyond the park's borders. (Montana ranchers claim that bison might transmit brucellosis to the state's cattle, even though there has never been a verified case of transmission.) The buffalo slaughter continues, with less publicity, to this day.
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