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Carol  
The Prairie
6/11/05, 3:33pm
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A good read...

Prairie: Where is Here?

By Candace Savage
Forest Magazine, Summer 2005

In 1960, 3 million acres of land were designated national grasslands and put under U.S. Forest Service purview. There are twenty national grasslands, all managed by the Forest Service, which encompass a variety of landscapes. They share a natural history characterized by remarkable ecological and economic value, political impact, biological diversity and resilience—and a vastness found in few other places in North America. These grasslands are the Loess Hills in Iowa, the Mescalero Dunes in New Mexico, the Black Hills Coniferous Forest in South Dakota, the Little Missouri Mountains in Montana—and others in almost every region. Candace Savage’s book, Prairie: A Natural History explores this remarkable ecosystem through its geography—both human and physical—and ecology, celebrating this oft-unsung landscape with perspective and affection.

The following excerpt is the first in a three-part series from Prairie.

You cannot take care of what you cannot see.—Dr. Gerould Wilhelm, 2002

There are people who think of the prairie as boring, and it is hard not to pity them. We see them on the highways, trapped inside their cars, propelled by a burning desire to be somewhere else. But even as we wonder at their hurry, we have to admit that these disgruntled travelers are following in a grand old North American tradition. On both sides of the Canada–U.S. border, prairie bashing is as old as the written record. In 1803, for example, when the United States was contemplating the acquisition of the lands west of the Mississippi River from the French, through the Louisiana Purchase, the great orator Daniel Webster was moved to object. “What do we want with this vast, worthless area,” he thundered, “this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?” And even after this supposedly howling wilderness had been annexed to the U.S., many observers remained unimpressed. The painter and naturalist John James Audubon was among them. In 1843, we find him traveling up the Missouri River on his first visit to the Great Plains. Forced onto the shore when his steamboat became grounded on a sandbar, he turned a disparaging eye toward the Dakota countryside. “The prairies around us are the most arid and dismal you can conceive of,” he wrote. “In fact these prairies (so called) look more like great deserts.”

It wasn’t until near the end of the nineteenth century that the tide of expert opinion turned and the Great Plains were opened to agricultural settlement, now touted far and wide as the new Garden of Eden. The fact was, however, that these magnificent grasslands were neither desert nor garden but something completely new to European and Euro-American experience. So new that at first there wasn’t even a name for them in either French or English. Pressed to come up with something, the early French fur traders had extended their term for a woodland meadow—une prairie—as a kind of metaphor for this big, wide, sparsely wooded, windswept world. But the Great Plains were far more than a meadow. What the travelers had encountered was a vast, dynamic ecosystem, a kind of tawny, slowly evolving organism that, in a climate of constant change, had sustained itself ever since the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. In the presence of this strangeness and grandeur, words and vision failed.

When the newcomers looked around them, all they could see was where they weren’t. This was not forest or sea coast or mountains; it was nothing but light and grass, the Big Empty in the middle of the continent. A vacant space, as they saw it, in desperate need of improvement. And this failure of vision—this inability to see and appreciate the Great Plains grasslands for what they truly are—has continued to plague our perceptions right down to the present. Flat? Boring? Lifeless? Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s time to drop out of the fast lane and give the prairies, our prairies, a second, loving look.

An Empire of Grass

The key to everything that happens on the prairies lies trampled under our feet. Although grasses may look humble, they are actually versatile and tough, capable of growing under the widest possible range of conditions. Anywhere plants can grow, grasses are likely to be on the scene, whether coexisting with cactuses in a desert, poking up among lichens on the Arctic tundra, or hiding in the leafy understory of a forest. And when circumstances are especially favorable for them, grasses can assert themselves to become the dominant vegetation. (“Dominance,” in this case, refers to the plants that contribute the most living tissue, or biomass, to the ecosystem. As trees to forests, so grasses to grasslands.)

A glance at a map of the world’s major grasslands suggests that these conditions are most likely to occur on a broad, landlocked plain, far from any significant body of water, somewhere near the center of a continental land mass.

It is in this semiarid environment—too wet to be a desert and too dry for forest—that grasses gain the upper hand, whether it be on the steppes of central Asia, on the pampas of Argentina, on the savannas of East Africa, or in the broad heartland of North America.

Globally, grasslands are the largest of the four terrestrial biomes, with a sweep that extends across roughly one-quarter of the land area of the planet, more than tundra, desert or woodlands. (At least, that’s the area over which grasses would potentially hold sway if natural conditions were allowed to prevail.) We’re talking some 46 million square kilometers (117.8 million square miles)—almost three times the area of Russia. In North America alone, grasslands naturally extend over about 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles), an area larger than many of the world’s major nations.

The first European known to have set foot on this great empire of grass was a soldier and sometime explorer named Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Dispatched from Mexico City in 1540, he was supposed to investigate rumors about a kingdom called Cibola, somewhere to the north, and to plunder its Seven Cities of Gold. Coronado and his party were astonished by what they found along their route. Here lay “a wilderness in which nothing grew, except for very small plants,” but which nonetheless was teeming with million upon million of strange humpbacked cattle. Following along after these apparently endless herds were parties of nomadic hunters—ancestral Lipan Apaches, or Quechero Indians—who dressed in bison-skin clothing, slept in bison-hide tipis, and subsisted on a diet of bison blood and bison muscle. Even the grass in this new world was cause for amazement, as it rebounded from the conquistadors’ steps and erased the trace of their presence. In this great round world, all that glittered was grass and an ecosystem of such richness and diversity that it could scarcely be credited.

But think how amazed Coronado would have been if he had somehow been able to sense the true extent and variety of North America’s grasslands. Little did he know that he had set foot on a vast prairie heartland—a continent of grass—that was flanked on every side by smaller islands of grassland and prairie-to-forest transitions, or savannas. To the north, for instance, beyond his farthest imaginings, lay the Peace River Parklands, a region of rolling grass and poplars that marked the frontier between the Great Plains grassland and the boreal forest. To the east, the Prairie-and-Oak-Transition zone—a tongue of prairie interspersed with groves of hardwoods—extended to the Great Lakes and beyond, marking the interface between the grasslands and the eastern deciduous forest. To the south, the prairies merged and melted into sultry, soupy marshlands to produce the semitropical vistas of the Western Gulf Coastal Grasslands. And to the west, in the broad valleys of the western Cordillera, lay the California Grasslands—spangled in spring by lupines and yellow-orange poppies—and the arid Palouse Grasslands of the Great Basin. Dominated by scraggly stands of sagebrush and spiky, sparse grasses, the Palouse, or bunchgrass, prairie stretched along the drainage of the Columbia and Snake rivers to intergrade with the shrubby growth of the Montana Valley Grasslands.

And in the center of everything there was the main attraction, the Great Plains Grasslands themselves, a landscape that even today invites wonderment. This truly is big sky country, with horizons that extend from the boreal forests of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the deserts of the American Southwest and from the foothills of the Rockies to the Mississippi drainage. The numbers speak for themselves. Length: 1,500 miles. Width: between 400 and 700 miles. Vaguely triangular in outline, the region is broadest toward the north and narrows to its apex in the Hill Country of central Texas. Total area: 1 million square miles, or roughly 14 percent of the entire landmass of Canada, Alaska and the Lower Forty-Eight states.

Then and Now

It is one thing to send our minds running across the contours of the Great Plains grasslands and their unexpectedly varied landforms. It is quite another to bring these spaces to life, to try to perceive them in their full, natural vitality and splendor. What would it have been like to step out onto the round bowl of the southern grasslands with Coronado in 1541, aware that at any moment our progress might be blocked by a dusty, pawing, milling herd of bison? Or, precisely 150 years later, in 1691, to have traveled with Henry Kelsey and his Cree and Assiniboine guides from Hudson Bay through the northern forest and onto the prairies of the Saskatchewan River country? What emotion would have seized us when a blocky, hunched shadow gradually resolved into the form of a massive and potentially lethal grizzly bear? Or what if we could slip back in time to 1805㪞 and join Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition up the Missouri River?

Imagine: Bison beyond counting. Flights of pronghorns at every turn. Elk coming up out of misty valleys to graze on the prairie at dawn. Bighorn sheep perched on the steep crumbling walls of the Little Missouri badlands. Wolves threading across the prairies, trailing the herds.

Two hundred years isn’t very long on the geologic time scales of planet Earth. These memories lie at the very threshold of the present, so close that we half expect to be able to walk into a fold in the landscape and encounter them. And something like this still occasionally happens when we stumble across a physical trace of the past, whether it’s a flaked stone tool that once belonged to a bison hunter or a shallow, saucer-shaped hollow that was worn into the dirt by generations of rolling, grunting bison. The animals have vanished, but the imprint of their flesh and blood is still on the land. It is all so mind-bogglingly recent.

There are not many places where the wild is as close at hand as it is on the Great Plains. In the Old World of Europe and Asia, no one can quite remember what “natural” looked like, because the land has been successively shaped and reshaped to meet human needs for hundreds or thousands of years. But in the New World of the prairies—right up to the moment when the settlement boom began—humans had lived off the natural productivity of this vast, sun-swept expanse of grass. From the time of their arrival on the plains, some 11,000 years before, the First Peoples had drawn their sustenance from the native animals and plants, experiencing both feast and famine as hunters and gatherers. This is not to say that they sat back passively and let nature take its course. They were active participants in the ecosystem; ready and willing to use whatever technologies they could command to improve their chances of survival. For example, they had no qualms about setting the prairies on fire, to green up the grass and draw bison in for the hunt. They tilled the soil of fertile river valleys and planted gardens of sunflowers, corn and squash. They eagerly adapted to the new culture of firearms and horses.

Yet despite these human innovations, the underlying dynamic of the ecosystem—the interplay between climate and grasses, grazers and predators—remained robust. A landscape that had evolved to support large herds of grazing animals was still doing exactly that, as life ebbed and flowed in time with the seasons. Then, in the early- to mid-1800s, the pace of change accelerated. In far-off Washington and Ottowa, ambitious governments began to assert their claim to the land and resources of the Great Plains. As a prelude to agricultural settlement, Native people were confined on reserves and reservations, whether by persuasion or by brute force, and the bison on which they depended—the multitudes of “humpbacked cattle” that had darkened the plains—were virtually wiped out in a bloody orgy of killing. Tellingly, the final stages of this slaughter were motivated by the discovery that bison hides could be cut and sewn into leather belts and used to power machines in the burgeoning industrial complex in the East. (The last free-roaming bison were killed in Canada in 1883 and in the U.S. in 1891.) Modern times had arrived on the prairies. And then came the settlers, an onrush of humanity that reached full flood in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Determined to make a stand in this new country, the incomers quickly progressed from temporary shacks and shanties into substantial homes, making them the first people ever to establish permanent, year-round dwellings on the open plains. This was a bold experiment, occasioned with far more risk than anyone at the time seemed to recognize or, at least, was prepared to admit. But whatever the hazards, the way forward was clear. The object was to assert control over the ecosystem and redirect its natural vitality into the production of commodities that could be bought and sold on the world market. Beef, not bison. Wheat and corn instead of prairie wool.

The result of this revolution is the landscape that we see today, a colorful patchwork of fields and rangelands, where geese feed in the stubble, foxes hunt in farmyards, and meadowlarks sing their hearts out on fence posts. These are the prairies that our generation was born to, and they are beautiful in their own right.

Yet the more we love this place as it is, the more we feel the pain of what it so recently was. The wild prairie ecosystem is gone. And this tragedy is compounded by the realization that we don’t even know exactly what it is that we have lost. “Civilization” and “progress” overran the grasslands with such an urgent rush that the ecosystem was disrupted before anyone had a chance to make a systematic study of exactly what was out there or to figure out how all the pieces interacted with each other. The people who might have had the most to teach us—the last generation of hunters and gatherers—went to their graves largely unheeded by the newcomers, taking their knowledge of the prairie and its life ways with them. We are left with little to guide us except for fragments of written descriptions in the journals of explorers and early settlers—partial lists of species, brief sightings, and offhand remarks—that leave many basic questions unanswered.

The depth of our ignorance is startling. Question: How many bison were there on the plains before the slaughter began? Answer: No one can tell us with any assurance. By working and reworking the available strands of evidence, experts have estimated the precontact population at anywhere from 12 million to 125 million animals, a variance that leaves more than 100 million bison in limbo. Although the currently accepted figure set these herds at some 30 million, no one really knows. And if we cannot account for big things like bison, how much less do we know about the smaller and less conspicuous organisms—little things like insects and spiders, fish and frogs, rodents and songbirds—that lived and died in their untold variety and interest and abundance? Yet if the wild past is lost to us, we can still look ahead. Despite everything that has happened, it is not too late to acknowledge the natural forces that continue to animate the prairie world and that, even today, shape the lives of all its creatures.

Ecosystems and Ecoregions

It’s not really fair to blame our ancestors for their lack of ecological awareness. At the time the plains were settled, “ecology” as we know it had not yet been invented. Instead, the science of the day was focused on fixing life to a pin, labeled and safely dead, with the species laid out in straight rows and separate compartments. Now, the task of charting what we know to be a set of overlapping and fluid realities—of acknowledging the differences between particular localities without denying their interconnectedness—remains a major preoccupation of ecologists. Although we cannot go back in time and view the wild prairie in full bloom, we can attempt to identify and assess the factors that, over the long term, made them what they are or, at least, what they once were.

The ecological interactions that find expression in these varying landscapes have been at work for thousands of years. Even today, characteristics such as average temperatures, precipitation, length of growing season, and drainage patterns provide the physical framework, or, one could say, the loom on which the fabric of the Great Plains ecosystem is woven. Yet for all their continuing importance, these long-term physical features are no longer the only powers in the land. Other interests have taken over; other hands are pulling threads. Those hands, of course, are human.

Over the last two hundred years, human beings have hit the prairies with the force of a major geological crisis, triggering not only extinctions and extirpations—of plains wolves, plains grizzlies, plains elk, plains bighorn sheep, free-ranging plains bison—but also dramatic shifts in the vegetation. Taken as a whole, the Great Plains grasslands now rank as one of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth. There is scarcely a patch of ground where we have not left our footprints.

These trends are deeply troubling, and we could easily get lost in the dark. To find our way forward we will have to be sure-footed, willing and able to move quickly from sorrow to hope, from past to present, from celebrating wildness to accepting and honoring our own accident-prone presence. We will need to see both the splendor of the life that has faded away and the abundance that still extends across the whole wide world of the prairie in every direction. For however diminished, the Great Plains are blooming and buzzing and wriggling and squirming with wildlife wherever we look.

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The mountains are calling and I must go. ~ John Muir ~ www.tarol.com
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