Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crisis in the Great Plains: Animals Have the Answer

When Europeans first crossed our continent, the Great Plains were known as the “Great American Desert,” nothing but an obstacle in their way to the Pacific Ocean. But, after the Pacific coast was fully saturated with settlers, they returned to the vast midsection of the country, this time with intent of staying.

The Europeans weren’t, however, the first agriculturalists to attempt a living there. A thousand years before, Indians left their forest margins to attempt growing their cold resistant maize and beans. By the 15th century, it appears that drought forced the Indians to forgo their enterprise. Barely a century later, the appearance of the horse into American culture made a buffalo-hunting existence a more profitable one for the Indians, leaving the plains fallow until the arrival of the European sod-busters.

The Great Plains

Today, inhabitants of this tough country are still experiencing its harsh realities. The land is simply too poor to provide a financial base for the richness and complexity of contemporary North American culture.

Currently, people in this region are surviving at a lower population density than the Indians a century and a half ago. Unless there is a dramatic change soon, agriculture will continue decline in large areas of the west. The relationship between North Americans and their land must change if sustainability is to be achieved.

What is the solution? A complete makeover of the region is needed, a comprehensive solution to a crisis 13,000 years in the making.

The ideal option is also the most romantic one. The region should be left to the buffalo and other previously dominant animals, which will in turn provide subsistence for a hunter-gatherer sort of enterprise, not dissimilar to the one that existed two centuries ago.

This plan would also provide a solution for other grave problems occurring in the rangelands. Perhaps the biggest controversy in parkland management recently has come down to elk population control, due mainly to their tremendously negative effect on trees and bushes. Recently, burgeoning elk numbers have been the cause of a great decline in flora diversity in the west.

Though it may look pristine, elk are wreaking havoc throughout the west.

The two most well known remedies for this crisis are proving inadequate. They are: to manage the land in order to maintain it as it was when the Indians lived on it, or to leave it alone – to treat it as a “wilderness,” in hope that it will revert to some sort of ecological balance. It is now obvious that neither of these will work. There will be no ecological balance with the current set of wildlife.

The problem with elk is quite simple - they lack the appropriate predators. Although wolves have been reintroduced and cougar persist, there is still a void of ambush predators such as jaguar and lion, a role that was temporarily filled by Indians. These once native ambush predators would provide protection for the berry producing bushes and trees that the elk threaten, for any areas that would provide cover for these large felines would be avoided by browsers.

It may seem extreme to us, but sights like this are not foreign to our land. In fact they have been the norm up until very recently.

Another problem that would be solved by the restoration of North America’s fauna would be the issue of fire. Although fire is a natural part of regeneration, too much fire is not a natural thing. Fire behaves like mega-herbivores do, consuming dry and coarse vegetation that the smaller vegetarians cannot consume. If large herbivores were to return, the problem of excessive wildfires would disappear.

Smoky the Bear? No, it's Smoky the Elephant.

The debate comes down to whether the Great Plains and parklands of the west are suitable for the re-arrival of elephant, camel, llama, panther and lion. I believe they are. These animals could provide the nucleus for a smaller, yet sustainable economy, providing ecologically inexpensive meat and hides to a new and finally adapted people.

Canadian Bison... I could do that.

Some claim that such an experiment is too novel to be tested on such a grand scale. But it has already been demonstrated in the Sonoran Desert, where a diverse group of introduced grazers and browsers have produced higher yields to ranchers than cattle alone. Also, with the exception of humans, new large mammal immigrants have never caused extinctions of the original fauna. Finally, any species that we would consider introducing are close relatives of species that already existed here just 13 millennia ago. That is such a short period of time, certainly too short of a time for any new species to evolve that would exclude these previous species.

So what if all this was to happen? The economy of the Great Plains would be completely revitalized. They would have a native and sustainable meat industry along with selective agriculture. Second we would have a harmonious ecosystem around us, where many problems of the day would be solved by simple coexistence, where the so called "balance" of nature once again could rule supreme. Money made from tourism to this region would rival any spectacle in the entire world, money made on the beauty of the Earth, not the exploitation of it.

One of the most striking aspects of the North American people is their ability to reinvent themselves. What we need now is the ability to imagine the reinvention. This region of America is in need of a new dream. No longer will it be a place of destitution. No longer will we have to travel to Africa to see a wildlife spectacle. We have the proof in our own history that this dream can be a reality, a reality of new prosperity, new pride, new harmony.

Many of these ideas were supplemented by the terrific book, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples by Tim Flannery.

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