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Grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars/ mountain lions,bobcats, wolverines, lynx, foxes, fishers and martens are the suite of carnivores that originally inhabited North America after the Pleistocene extinctions. This site invites research, commentary, point/counterpoint on that suite of native animals (predator and prey) that inhabited The Americas circa 1500-at the initial point of European exploration and subsequent colonization. Landscape ecology, journal accounts of explorers and frontiersmen, genetic evaluations of museum animals, peer reviewed 20th and 21st century research on various aspects of our "Wild America" as well as subjective commentary from expert and layman alike. All of the above being revealed and discussed with the underlying goal of one day seeing our Continent rewilded.....Where big enough swaths of open space exist with connective corridors to other large forest, meadow, mountain, valley, prairie, desert and chaparral wildlands.....Thereby enabling all of our historic fauna, including man, to live in a sustainable and healthy environment. - Blogger Rick

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Stanford Masters Student in Environmental Studies, Michelle Berry is in the midst of an internship with the AMERICAN PRAIRIE RESERVE that has her studying the 1770-1840 faunal matrix that existed pre and post the "Mountain Man Era" ...............So many theories as to the distribution and abundance of the wildlife that existed here both before and after the Northern Plains Indian tribes had access to the horse...........We are constantly looking for source documentation and interpretation of what the Americas looked and felt like prior to colonial invasion by Spain, Portugal, France England, Holland and Russia..........We look forward from more from Michelle as she pours through 1st person diary and other historical narratives that provide hints of the matrix and distribution of Wild America on our Great Plains during the colonial and pre-colonial eras


Michelle Berry; American Prairie Reserve

“Immense” was the word Meriwether Lewis used repeatedly to describe the abundance of wildlife on the prairie during his transcontinental expedition with William Clark from 1804 to 1806; “We saw immence quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up the river: consisting of herds of Buffaloe, Elk and antelopes with some deer and wolves” (April 17th, 1805). The expedition, termed the Corps of Discovery, was a pet project of President Thomas Jefferson, who wished to learn more about the geography, people and wildlife of his recent 828,000 square mile shopping spree known as the Louisiana Purchase.

Today, the plains are barely recognizable from the descriptions provided by the journals of Lewis and Clark. During the 1800s a series of localized extinctions occurred across the American prairie, instigated in large part by the arrival of fur trappers (who heard about the abundance of animals encountered by the expedition) and increasing numbers of settlers (thanks to steamboats, wagon trains and railroads). An estimated 30 million bison were reduced to a few hundred, pronghorn numbered in the low thousands, and elk, along with predators like grizzlies and wolves, completely disappeared.

Distribution of Wild Bison in 1800. Source: American Prairie Reserve

Distribution of Wild Bison in 1893. Source: American Prairie Reserve

Since 2001, American Prairie Reserve (APR) has been working to restore the prairie ecosystem in northeastern Montana. As an intern with APR, I have been tasked with examining historical works of literature and other primary sources to establish wildlife population estimates in the Reserve region. I am focusing my research on the time period between the late 1700s and 1840, simply because this is the time period, before severe modification by Europeans and Americans, for which the most amount of information exists. Therefore, my research findings will provide a reference to what this ecosystem could have supported historically, but it in no way represents a pristine image of the environment.

For any wildlife restoration project, it is necessary to understand what species abundance and distribution looked like historically. This provides us with information about how the ecological community once interacted and establishes a baseline for what the ecosystem could support. The task is surprisingly difficult for the mixed-grass prairie in northeastern Montana: many of the species disappeared in the span of two or three decades, and records of their populations prior to the extirpation are very limited.

“Antelope Shooting,” c. 1845 by George Catlin. From the collection, “North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of America." Explorers and artists provide a glimpse into this time period through their journals and paintings.

There are, however, several possible approaches to this research question. Scientists have provided their own answers using ecological models that estimate carrying capacities with forage survey data. Historians have taken an alternate approach using old documents, journals, and evidence from the archaeological and anthropological record to construct a portrait of what this ecosystem once looked like. Many historians have conducted research in this manner on the Yellowstone area, but to my knowledge, nobody has until now endeavored to do an analysis of the historical wildlife in our area of interest, the American Serengeti.

While indisputably important, this research is also inherently limited. First person accounts are biased in nature, and archaeological record is a mere trace of all that was once there. But though this world of historical ecology is filled with bias and uncertainty, it is possible to extract some granules of truth. The foreword to My Life as an Indian, the memoir of an American fur trapper who lived with the Piegan Blackfeet, describes the document as “a true history and not romance, yet abounds in romantic incident,” noting that “in its absolute truthfulness lies its value.”

In addition, ecosystems are perpetually in a state of flux and evolution, and thus may never be accurately qantified. No matter how rigorous my research, I can only arrive at an estimate of how numerous different wildlife species were at one particular time in history, under the influence of numerous environmental and human pressures.

Pronghorn doe and twin fawns on American Prairie Reserve. Photo: Diane Hargreaves

As American Prairie Reserve grows, our hope is that the public will be able to experience a landscape that is part of our natural heritage with the understanding that it will continue to evolve over time, linked with our own behaviors. I look forward to sharing my discoveries, challenges and insights with you over the next several posts and would equally enjoy hearing about similar undertakings from around the world.

Michelle Berry is a Master’s student in environmental studies at Stanford University and is excited to intern with American Prairie Reserve this summer. Her 10-week internship was made possible by the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

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