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Chapter 2: A history of wildlife in North America

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Edited by Peter Moyle & Douglas Kelt
By Peter Moyle and Mary A. Orland, last revised July 2004

The history of the beaver and the bison in North America are two examples of how the complex interactions between agrarian/industrial European society and hunter-gatherer/horticultural Native American societies resulted in severe overexploitation of wildlife, and tragic consequences for Native Americans. European settlers' were driven by the demands of the early capitalist industrial economy in Europe. As a result of their need to repay ship owners who provided transportation and supplies to settlements, European settlers began to look around their new environment to find natural products that they could ship to Europe and sell. These products included salted fish, furs, timber, masts for ships, or any other product that was scarce in Europe. The western worldview of the time saw landscapes not as integrated wholes but as collections of individual commodities, which meant parts of an ecosystem were extractable units free for the taking. These natural resources were in incredible abundance in North America at that time, in part because the relatively small hunter-gatherer populations of Native Americans had little need to exploit them.

Also in line with their early industrial stage of development, Europeans of the time perceived land and animals not only as commodities but as private property. Whereas in most hunting and gathering societies, the animal belongs to the one who kills it, in European society wildlife and hunting had been reserved for the owners of land and wildlife. When Native Americans "sold" land to Europeans, they perceived themselves as merely sharing the use of the land. Europeans perceived themselves as buying the land and everything on it, regardless of the way the land might be used. These ideological and economic differences caused repeated conflict and still do to a certain extent. This can be seen in the history of beaver trapping and the history of bison killing.

The Beaver Trade
The beaver trade was stimulated by the need of the European colonies to find a commodity that would repay the debts they owed to European merchants. European settlers and traders were quite aware that they were not as efficient as native hunters in capturing beaver, so often they hired native people to hunt for them. Traditionally, hunting peoples had traded with horticultural peoples on the southern coast of New England, exchanging maize (corn) for pelts. Europeans inserted themselves into the traditional network, initially using "wampum" (shell beads) as currency. Although the beaver trade began in New England, similar trade networks existed later in all areas of North America where beaver were found, from New England to the Pacific Coast. The trade in furs in the seventeenth century revolutionized Native American trading economies, building on the old forms of gift-giving and kinship networks. European traders created a regional economy from what had once been a local network as they shuttled between corn-growing Native Americans and settlers of southern New England, wampum producers along Long Island Sound, and Native Americans of the rural north who hunted. European trade goods such as metal kettles also figured in the trade. "Trade linked these groups with an abstract set of values measured in pelts, bushels of corn, fathoms of wampum, and price movements in sterling on London market" (Cronon 1983).

The market hunting of beaver had massive ecological and social repercussions in New England and throughout the range of the beaver. Earlier, Native Americans had had little incentive to kill more animals than they needed. They never accumulated animal skins beyond the need for personal use and a little barter. In many tribes, all of a person's possessions had to be moved many times a year as the village or family followed animals seasonally or settled down briefly to raise a corn crop. As the native people lacked draft animals, everything a family owned had to be carried on family members' backs (or, on the Great Plains, on a dog- or horse-drawn travois). Commercialization of the traditional trade practices thus led to the disintegration of earlier, less damaging hunting practices because the demand of the industrial economy was essentially unlimited and harvest regulation non-existent.

In New England, it was clear by 1640 that beaver numbers had declined (Cronon 1983). By the end of the seventeenth century, the beaver trade was dead in New England. In other parts of North America the fur trade, with beaver as the main commodity, continued through the 18th century. As one area was trapped out, hunters and trappers moved farther inland, especially into the interior of Canada. By the end of the 18th century, the fur trade was no longer profitable, in large part because beaver and other fur-bearing animals had become extremely scarce across North America. By the time the beaver trade collapsed, many Native American communities were changed beyond recognition. Instead of producing most of the goods necessary for survival, they hunted and trapped fur-bearing animals and sold all of the pelts they acquired. They became dependent upon European trade goods such as blankets, fabrics, and food. By the 1660s with the beaver gone, the native peoples of New England turned to the one commodity they had left to sell, their land. Those few that had survived epidemics, loss of income and trade, and loss of land began to keep European livestock. In the north where the beaver trade continued, Native Americans began to accept European notions of animals as property. Territories used by particular bands became more fixed in an attempt to conserve and ration the beaver that were left.

The ecological consequences of the beaver trade were wide ranging because beaver are keystone species (Figure 2.5). A keystone species is a species upon which many other species depend for their survival, and thus they are crucial for maintaining biodiversity (Krebs 1994). Keystone species often benefit the other species in the community by altering the physical structure of the environment in such a way that creates habitat for other species, and such keystone species are known as "ecosystem engineers." Beaver are large rodents that form dams in streams and rivers with small trees and branches they harvest from surrounding areas, creating large, slow moving pools where before there was rapidly running water (Naiman 1988) These slow moving pools are important habitat for many aquatic species of fish, amphibians, and invertebrates that are not adapted to rapidly running water. Slowing the movement of water also causes nutrients and sediment to settle out in the beaver ponds, rather than being washed downstream. This greatly increases the nutrient richness of the streams, and thereby the quantity of the insect food base to the bats, birds, and other wildlife in the surrounding area.

Figure 2.5: Top: The beaver, keystone species and North America's largest rodent. Source: Acadia National Park, Maine. Bottom: Beaver dam, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Source: Gerald and Buff Corsi © California Academy of Sciences.

There are also plant species that are specially adapting to living in the riparian habitat along beaver ponds (riparian = along side a river or stream) and there are species of birds that specialize in using habitat created by these plant species. Even elk, moose, and other large herbivores prefer beaver-created riparian habitat. Through time beaver ponds naturally fill in with silt, and may eventually become highly productive meadows, although in some areas they may remain permanent bogs. There are numerous plant species that specialize in colonizing these meadows, and these meadows are also important habitat for wildlife. As beaver disappeared due to overharvesting, they left behind rich soils in the areas once occupied by their ponds. As a consequence, settlers often looked for abandoned beaver ponds to farm. Of course, without beaver building dams to form ponds, the numerous aquatic and terrestrial species that were adapted to living in beaver-created habitat declined and the creation of new meadows and bogs by their activity ceased. The productivity of entire stream ecosystems was also changed by the lack of beaver, as was the hydrology of entire landscapes. The collapse of beaver may have led to the decline of some elk populations. It has been suggested that the loss of beaver contributed to a decline in wolves in some areas, because they lost both their backup food source and habitat for their preferred prey, elk.

The combination of decline in the value of beaver pelts and the protection of beaver in many states has resulted in the dramatic recovery of many beaver populations. The mid 20th century saw an explosion in beaver populations in North America to densities that presumably approximate pre-European densities. A concurrent dramatic change in the hydrology and landscape was seen as beaver rapidly re-created ponds, bogs, and riparian communities. Unfortunately, beaver continue to be regarded as pests in some urban areas as they block culverts with dams, flood roads and parks, burrow into flood control levees, and cut down newly planted trees that are part of home landscaping. In the absence of natural predators and trappers to control populations, beaver continue to be a problem in many areas, while simultaneously delighting visitors who see them swimming about in unexpected places. There is a fairly large population of beaver, for example, in Putah Creek which flows past the UC Davis campus and they are often seen by people who fish or canoe in the evenings. However, they selectively eat native trees and largely ignore exotic species such as tamarisk, eucalyptus, and arundo (the bamboo-like grass that grows in thick clumps). As a result, they increase the difficulty of restoring native riparian plant communities to the creek!

Bison, often referred to (incorrectly) as buffalo, are one of the most enduring symbols of American wildlife and the "Wild West." However, it is not widely known that the modern bison likely evolved into its current form from the influence of the first human hunters that entered North America (Flannery 2001). Bison are one of the few species of megafauna to survive the Pleistocene Overkill. Evidence suggests that North American bison went from being solitary or small group animals to large herd animals since the arrival of humans to North America. The transition to living in large herds was marked by smaller overall size, less difference in size between the sexes, and distinctive fur patterns on males to advertise their virility under herd conditions. In the predecessors of the modern bison males were solitary for most of the year, only coming into contact with the small herds of females and young during the mating season, and fought in one on one combat for the right to mate with females. However, a solitary animal is very vulnerable to attack by predators, including human hunters. The very large herds of bison on the Great Plains could number in the millions. Being in groups is a way of ensuring protection from predators that is practiced by numerous forms of wildlife, and also invertebrates and even plants (Krebs 1994). The idea is that the odds of any individual animal being captured go down as a predator has so many individuals to choose from. The group itself might also engage in behavior that confuses predators, or take defensive actions. As is indicated by the healthy bison populations in Yellowstone Park today, bison can survive quite well in forested, mountainous terrain (Flannery 2001). However, when the Native Americans were present bison lived primarily on the Great Plains, where the flat, open topography allowed them to roam in large herds. This distribution, in addition to the fact that there were no other predators besides humans that posed a large threat to bison at this time, are the key pieces of evidence that modern bison evolved in response to hunting pressure from humans.

Figure 2.5: Top: A herd of bison in their typical short grass prairie habitat, Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. Lower left: A bison cow and calf. Lower right: A bison bull in winter.

By the end of the 17th century, the westward expansion of European settlers had begun in North America. Many of these settlers had a belief in "manifest destiny," that they were divinely appointed users of the American earth and that this use was for the good of all "mankind." Secular politicians of the 18th and 19th centuries expressed a clear early industrial attitude when they argued, much as the early European agrarian settlers had, that the native peoples had to give up their territory because they had no use for it except hunting, gathering, and fishing. The descriptions of bison by early European explorers are reminiscent of the words of settlers who first came to New England and described the native wildlife. It is estimated that 20-30 million of the creatures inhabited the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains (Lott 2002). George Catlin, the painter who familiarized Europeans on the East Coast with what they referred to as a "vast wilderness", commented in his journals that the bison herds he saw stretched as far as the horizon.

At the time of initial contact, the East Coast European settlers had no real interest in settling in the Great Plains. Explorers such as Lewis and Clark and those few settlers who crossed the Plains on their way to Oregon, California, or the Southwest generally described the Plains as a "howling wilderness", which would be best to transverse as quickly as possible. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 (and subsequent discovery of silver in Nevada and gold in Colorado) and the completion of the transcontinental railroad twenty years later made taming the Great Plains a priority to European Americans. In order to exploit the new mineral commodities, it was necessary to get past the Plains and the peoples who lived there who had a (justifiable) reputation for exacting tolls from travelers. Although the United States got a peace treaty in 1851 in which most tribes agreed not to attack travelers, hostile encounters grew in numbers and travelers and traders continually complained. The army was not much help, although it was in charge of administering trading posts along the routes.

The native peoples of the Great Plains began hunting buffalo even more intensively in the early 18th century after they acquired horses. By the time of direct European contact one hundred years later, their material culture was almost entirely dependent upon the buffalo. It is clear from the customs, songs, and kinship networks that the buffalo was the center of their lives. Everything from tents and shoes to glue was either derived from the buffalo or from smaller animals that were hunted in addition to it. Every part of the animal was used.

Between 1851 and the final defeat of the Dakota in 1890, the United States government used three tactics to clear the Native Americans out of the way: 1) military attacks (2) deliberate spread of epidemic disease to isolated groups of peoples (through infected clothes and blankets), and (3) the destruction of the bison herds. However, the market-driven demand for buffalo hides was likely the ultimate driving force behind the near extinction of the buffalo (Dary 1989). Particularly in the two decades following the Civil War, hunters literally killed buffalo by the millions. Sometimes carcasses were left to rot; sometimes the animals' tongues and hides were taken. Two to four million were killed each year during the 1870s, and it was recorded that twenty thousand hides were sold in St. Louis in a single day during this period. The last large herd of bison (300,000) was surrounded and killed in North Dakota in 1883. Even Yellowstone, created as a National Park in 1872, did not escape the slaughter. Only the1886 U.S. Cavalry's intervention to stamp out poaching saved buffalo and other large herbivores in the park (Chase, 1986). In 1889, 85 wild bison were left outside Yellowstone National Park, and the last of these was shot in Colorado in 1897. By 1902 there were only 20 individual bison left in Yellowstone, and 150 in Canada. The species had gone from over 30 million to less than 200 in a few decades under the onslaught of western early industrial society.

The disappearance of bison had a major impact on Native Americans. By the early 1880s, Native American people could no longer find buffalo in the numbers required to sustain themselves. Many moved to the trading posts and took up a semi-sedentary way of life, thus putting themselves at greater risk for epidemic diseases. Like the people of the East Coast, with their livelihood gone, they became increasingly dependent upon imported American and European goods and foods. By 1890, not only were the buffalo virtually extinct south of the American-Canadian border, but disease and massacre had succeeded in decimating the people of the Great Plains and driving their cultures into collapse. Ironically, the origins of the remaining wild herds of bison in the United States are at least partly the result of one of the last bison hunts by Native Americans in the winter of 1872-73. A member of the Pend d'Oreille tribe, Samuel Walking Coyote, rescued eight orphan calves, which grew into a small herd he eventually sold to some ranchers interested in bison (Lott 2002). This herd became the source of animals used to re-establish bison in parts of Canada and, later, in the National Bison Range in Montana, established in 1909.

There are now bison populations in Yellowstone and other areas of the Northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. There is growing interest in raising bison as a source of lean meat and as an animal naturally adapted to living in the harsh and variable conditions present in western grasslands. Some conservation groups have the vision of re-establishing grasslands over millions of acres of depleted land and re-establishing large herds of bison as a wild but harvestable crop. For a wonderfully written and highly personal description of bison and their history, read American Bison, a natural history by Dale Lott (2002, University of California Press). Dr. Lott was brought up on the National Bison Range and spent his life studying bison behavior and conservation as a professor at UC Davis.

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Chase, A. 1986. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.
Cronon, W. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, New York.
Dary, D. A., 1989. The Buffalo Book. Swallow Press/Ohio State University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Roots of the modern environmental dilemma: A brief history of the relationship between humans and wildlife
2. A history of wildlife in North America
3. Climatic determinants of global patterns of biodiversity
4. Biodiversity
5. Natural selection
6. Principles of ecology
7. Niche and habitat
8. Conservation biology
9. Conservation in the USA: legislative milestones
10. Alien invaders
11. Wildlife and Pollution
12. What you can do to save wildlife

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