Since the Pleistocene epoch, when steppe lions, long-legged hyenas, dire wolves and various long-toothed cats preyed on such megafauna as giant sloths, mammoths and a massive species of buffalo known as Bison antiquus, the Great Plains have nurtured a plethora of wildlife. Those animals in turn drew human hunters, who followed and harvested the herds for their own sustenance. Author Dan Flores has also tracked the animals across the region, studying and sharing their stories in articles, lectures and books. His passion for the natural history of the Plains has informed us about the region and made clear that both environmental factors and human interactions have shaped the region. His 2016 book American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains earned Flores many honors, including a Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Flores received the 2017 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award for his book Coyote America. He’s also won Wranglers for three nonfiction articles—“When the Buffalo Roamed” and “Coyote: An American Original” (published in Wild West) and “Bringing Home All the Pretty Horses” (Montana, The Magazine of Western History). Flores recently spoke with Wild West from his home in Santa Fe.
‘So many of the big, historic animals of the Great Plains do have clear analogues on the African grasslands—bison and wildebeests, wild horses and zebras, pronghorns and gazelles, elk and kudu, coyotes and jackals, wolves and wild dogs. Africa retained its lions, while we lost ours in the Pleistocene extinctions, but the grizzly functioned on the Plains as a lionlike king of beasts’
Why relate the Great Plains to the African Serengeti?
The analogy between the natural Great Plains and the African Serengeti was long in my mind, but it became a conscious comparison when I began reading about a class of elite European hunters in the 19th century who clearly saw the similarities and launched safaris into both regions. There are ecological differences, of course, but so many of the big, historic animals of the Great Plains do have clear analogues on the African grasslands—bison and wildebeests, wild horses and zebras, pronghorns and gazelles, elk and kudu, coyotes and jackals, wolves and wild dogs. Africa retained its lions, while we lost ours in the Pleistocene extinctions, but the grizzly functioned on the Plains as a lionlike king of beasts. North America of course also lost its elephants, cheetahlike cats, hyenas and camels during the extinctions of 10,000 years ago, while Africa didn’t. Which is why, when he took a train out of Nairobi and onto the African grasslands in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt referred to it as “a train ride through the Pleistocene.”
The other similarity that struck those 19th-century hunter-tourists: Both the Great Plains and Serengeti are wide-open grasslands, where all those herd animals and their predators were in plain sight, easily seen across great distances. That was very exciting for people used to being in forested landscapes, where animals are difficult to see.
Which historical accounts of Great Plains fauna do you find most intriguing?
I enjoy reading firsthand historical accounts of American nature. Good ones can function like time machines, enabling you to imagine places and things you’ve never seen, and quotes from many of them appear in my books.
For a sense of the wildlife spectacle Americans got to witness when they journeyed onto the Plains, it’s always hard to beat Lewis and Clark. For all the grammatical adventures in their journals (not so different from reading things on the internet these days), their accounts can produce great images in the mind.
Other scientific explorers are rarely as fun to read, although I’ve always loved the 1819–20 [James] Long Expedition’s descriptions of moving through herds of bison and wild horses, and packs of wolves so innocent of humans that their masses parted to allow the explorers to pass. But for the emotional content of seeing so many animals of so many different kinds, wildlife painter John James Audubon’s 1843 Missouri River journal is spellbinding. Audubon was gobsmacked by the spectacle of so much dramatic animal life. His fellow artist, George Catlin, also wrote some nicely poetic descriptions of the beauty of wild horse bands and the raw physics of wolf/bison encounters.
Some of the accounts of the destruction that ended it all are very moving. In American Serengeti I quote from the memoir of a cowboy who rode up onto a Plains tableland in 1884 to find no grizzlies, no wolves, no bison left—only wild horses, pronghorns and coyotes, the last survivors. The scene struck him as miragelike, as well it would have.
What are the earliest accounts of such animals?
Spanish authors Francisco Hernández and Francisco Javier Clavijero—in 1651 and 1780, respectively—wrote the first descriptions of coyotes available to Europeans, and Spanish explorers and military men often penned notices of grizzlies, horses gone wild and other animals in the West. But for reading Americans it was Lewis and Clark who first gave the country a sense of the very different animals found in the West, most of which they encountered within about a four-week period on entering the Great Plains for the first time in 1804. Americans knew wolves from Europe and had encountered wolves on the Atlantic shore. But the coyote—which Lewis and Clark gave the name “prairie wolf”—was an indigenous American animal unfamiliar to them. The accounts of their grizzly encounters, which I quote at length in American Serengeti, are some of the earliest and probably the most detailed (and fascinating and harrowing) descriptions we have of the big bears.
As for horses, their return to the Great Plains started on the southern Plains, from Spanish colonies in New Mexico and Texas, so the early accounts of how they reverted to their wild state—a subject that absolutely fascinated Thomas Jefferson—come from travelers in that part of the world. My favorite early wild horse descriptions are from an early French scientist, Jean-Louis Berlandier, in Texas, and those of George Catlin and a Boston poet/mountain man named Albert Pike, who crossed the Plains several times in the 1820s and ’30s.
How did such accounts shape public perception?
The early accounts of coyotes mostly confused people—was it a fox, a jackal, a wolf? Coyotes ended up killed by the hundreds of thousands in the fur trade, but not until Mark Twain wrote Roughing It, in 1873, was there a nationally read, strongly opinionated account of them for Americans to digest. Still, I would argue the coyote example is typical of how we Americans tended to approach wildlife. We decided on policy—in the case of coyotes their outright eradication—before we bothered to do any science to understand them.
Lewis and Clark’s confrontations with grizzly bears essentially convinced readers the bears were fearsome beasts to be avoided or, if you had any advantage, killed on sight. Hence the scientific name we gave them: Ursus horribilis. We killed them on sight and drove them off the Plains and into the Rockies by the 1880s.
Americans were pretty sure they knew wolves well from prior experiences with them in Europe. But a new, and common, theme in many early western accounts of wolves was a certain incredulity at how tame they could be—William Clark killed one with a bayonet thrust—and their “cowardice” in the presence of humans. Wolves were growling, snapping fighters when confronted with other predators over a carcass, but their meekness around humans is a standard trope in early Western writing.
As for wild horses, the initial writings about them—Catlin’s, for example, which were widely read—had the same effect accounts of immense bison herds did: They gave 19th-century readers a sense of a potential economy built around the capture of Western wild horses. Mustanging and the wild horse trade were the result.
Why have coyotes proven so resilient?
As I detail in my biography of the coyote, Coyote America, in 1900 nature writer Ernest Thompson-Seton wrote, as the lead piece for Scribner’s Magazine, a nature story titled “Tito: The Story of the Coyote That Learned How.” By then Americans had watched an entire bestiary—bison, pronghorns, wolves, wild horses, many others—disappear from the Plains and much of the West. Yet, somehow, coyote numbers seemed as high as ever. In “Tito” a captive female coyote chained in a rancher’s yard observes all the human stratagems for killing coyotes, then escapes and raises up pups she teaches how to avoid human wiles…and her pups teach the next generation and so on. “Tito” was a sort of Moses and the Egyptians story, an allegorical attempt to explain how coyotes could escape the slaughterhouse at the end of the 19th century.
It took biologists another half-century to discover the real explanation. As smaller canids that evolved alongside wolves, coyotes had been persecuted enough by gray wolves that they evolved a series of adaptations that make them remarkable survivors, especially when harassed. When ranchers and bounty hunters, and then a federal bureau dedicated to exterminating them, took a war of attrition to coyotes, all these evolutionary adaptations kicked in. Perceiving a drop in local coyote populations when their howls produce fewer answers, coyotes respond by having larger litters and are able to get more pups to adulthood if there’s less competition for resources. Then there is their evolved trait called fission-fusion. As a social species they can cooperate (fusion) in hunts and defense. But when persecuted, they also have the ability to live as singles or pairs (fission) and will often colonize widely when they are in fission mode. Ironically, then, the war to exterminate coyotes in the West has produced the unintended effect of spreading them across the continent.
‘Ironically, the war to exterminate coyotes in the West has produced the unintended effect of spreading them across the continent’
How did Twain’s writing color your impression of coyotes?
In 1873 Mark Twain wrote a three-page, darkly comic passage about coyotes in his best seller Roughing It, giving Americans a description of the coyote that finally allowed us to form an opinion. With Twain’s encouragement, that opinion was, basically, that coyotes were breathing up good air and ought to become a national sacrifice animal as fast as possible. As much a fan of Twain’s writing as I am, I have to admit the historical trajectory from Roughing It to the Animal Damage Control Act of 1931, which appropriated 10 million dollars to exterminate coyotes, is a pretty direct line, even if Twain largely intended his passage to be funny.
Canadian biologist Valerius Geist suggests the fierce short-faced bear kept humans from crossing the Bering Land Bridge. What do you say?
Ever since I read Geist’s speculation, it has intrigued me. While there is coincidental evidence that dates for the extinction of the short-faced bear and the arrival of humans in the Americas coincide—at least with our present knowledge of human arrivals—it’s difficult to find any corroborating evidence. It’s dangerous to leverage a claim like that without corroboration. But I’ve seen reconstructed short-faced bear skeletons at natural history museums in Paris and on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, and as a human who might have been potential prey for such an active and gracile predator, they spook me a little.
How did pronghorns survive the Pleistocene?
I think pronghorns were so perfectly adapted to life on the American Serengeti that they became capable of surviving their predators and did. Being able to run 65 mph makes no sense when your fastest historical-era predator, the gray wolf, can only run 43 mph. What pronghorns allow us to imagine 10,000 years later—somewhat astonishingly, it seems to me—is how fast a Pleistocene cheetah or hunting hyena could run. In their minds female pronghorns still seem to live among these ghosts of the Pleistocene, since to this day they demand their male suitor be the fastest runner on the prairie. Yet as adults they no longer have predators at all.
How did Indian warfare aid wildlife expansion?
Lewis and Clark were among the first in the West to notice a phenomenon we now refer to as “wildlife buffer zones.” They wrote that across their 8,000-mile journey they had noticed a pattern: Wildlife was most common in the zones that lay between tribes at war with one another. They found Indian hunting parties scarce in such zones, along with a corresponding buildup of wildlife.
Is there any truth to the old trope white hunters killed off bison to deny American Indians a vital food source?
The answer we’ve long accepted—that it was a government/military conspiracy to kill off bison so Indians would accept reservations—itself has a history that dates back to a couple of 19th-century quotes by government bureaucrats and to a 20th-century memoir by a former buffalo hunter, the first to make this argument. But no, my own research finds this answer suspect. I’m afraid it was the market—a tragedy of the commons that’s a part of unregulated capitalism—that wiped out the buffalo, both in the U.S. and in Canada. Somewhat like arguing it was “actually states’ rights that caused the Civil War,” the government conspiracy charge has long made us all feel better about the bison story. Read my chapter “A Dream of Bison” in American Serengeti for a full understanding of what actually happened to the buffalo. Along the way you’ll also see how I rescue the reputation of General Philip Sheridan.
How have environmental factors impacted Great Plains species?
All the species we found there were supremely adapted by evolution and natural selection to life on the American grasslands. Bison and pronghorns, gray wolves and coyotes—they had all been shaped by the possibilities and limits of the American Serengeti. Once Europeans restored them to America, horses went wild there so quickly and easily, because horses had spent 56 million years evolving to Great Plains conditions. Through photosynthesis, grasses converted sunlight into energy that grazing animals could take up, and their flesh became the source of energy for their predators, including humans. Bison, for example, probably increased to the numbers they did because they were more perfectly adapted to the grasslands than their early human hunters were.
Were those factors more or less instrumental in the decimation of herds?
What Great Plains animals were not adapted to, and could scarcely do so because of the speed of the changes, were the new conditions Old World humans brought to the region in the 1800s. Until the very end bison seemed unable to cope with human weapons that could kill them from great distances. That had never been a condition that called for an evolutionary response before. Pronghorns migrated in front of winter storms but had no reason to evolve an ability to leap over obstacles on the open grasslands. So when barbed-wire fences came to the Plains, migrating pronghorns stacked up against them and died by the thousands in snowdrifts. Gray wolves evolved as pack hunters to bring down large prey. That left them susceptible to human killing strategies that used the scent of downed pack mates to lure and kill remaining members of a pack.
Unfortunately, though, we can’t exonerate the market hunters just because Plains animals weren’t adapted to modern conditions. Between 1820 and 1920 hunters on the Great Plains engaged in the largest slaughter of wildlife discoverable in modern world history. It’s a pathetic chapter in our history.
Why was there no corporate involvement in the horse trade as in the buffalo trade?
The wild horse trade became a significant economy on the Great Plains beginning about 1780, when Americans like Philip Nolan began journeying west, catching horses and selling them on the advancing frontier as riding and work stock. The trade continued even into the 20th century, as wild horses got rounded up, green-broken and sold to agents of the Allies in World War I. But the trade never produced the kind of corporate investment the fur/hide trade did. Up until the success of the Mexican Revolution in 1821 that’s because the horse trade was primarily illegal, a contraband endeavor that took place on lands possessed by Spain.
When Mexico opened up the Southwest to U.S. trade, though, corporations could have gotten involved. I suspect they didn’t because, unlike the fur trade, the horse trade didn’t require trading posts or wagon brigades or steamship travel to transport the resource to market. Horses were wealth that could move under their own power; itinerant mustangers simply drove them to market. In this respect the horse trade bore a closer relationship to the cattle trail drives after the Civil War than to the corporate fur trade, which required such an outlay of capital to make it work. WW