Sierra Magazine

Lewis & Clark's America

The Corps of Discovery left us a blueprint for a wild West.

By Todd Wilkinson and Paul Rauber

When Thomas Jefferson sent young Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery to survey the lands beyond the Mississippi, the West was terra incognita. Some believed the explorers would encounter mountains of salt, woolly mammoths, seven-foot beavers, or Welsh-speaking Indians. Jefferson's aims for the expedition were partly political (the United States having only recently acquired the territory from a cash-strapped Napoleon Bonaparte), partly practical (to see if one could get to the Pacific by boat), but also scientific: He wanted to know just what was out there.

Lewis and Clark were a few millennia too late for Pleistocene megafauna, but they were privileged to witness a glorious, diverse ecosystem in full flower. "This scenery already rich, pleasing and beautiful," Lewis wrote near the White River in South Dakota on September 17, 1804, "was still farther hightened by immence herds of buffaloe, deer elk and antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains. I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of buffaloe which could be compre[hend]ed at one view to amount to 3,000."

Within a very few years, it would all be swept away. The destruction came in five epic waves: the near eradication of the North American bison; the plowing under of native grasslands for crop cultivation; the decimation of wolves, bears, beavers, and other fur-bearing animals by trappers and bounty hunters; the advent of industrial logging; and the collapse of the great salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest caused by commercial fishing, dams, and development. No sooner had Lewis and Clark embarked in the spring of 1804 than they began writing what were to become epitaphs. When they crossed the Kansas River, Clark described encountering a large flock of "Parrot queets," now thought to be the handsome, bright green and yellow Carolina parakeet, the last of which died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. On July 5, 1806, Lewis noted "a great number of pigeons breeding in this part of the mountains." Seven years later, John James Audubon claimed to have beheld over Kentucky a flock of passenger pigeons a mile wide that took three days to pass. They flew at the rate, he calculated, of more than 300 million birds per hour; the storm of their flapping wings was said to be heard six miles away. In 1914, the last passenger pigeon (named Martha) passed away, also at the Cincinnati Zoo.

That such numbers could dwindle to nothing so swiftly is a harsh lesson in population dynamics. Equally remarkable is that most species have hung on. Some are still in great peril, while others have staged astonishing comebacks. The key is habitat: Restore it, and life returns. But where is the blueprint? Thanks to Jefferson's passion for natural science, Lewis and Clark left us with a description of "the soil and face of the country, it's growth and vegetable productions," as Jefferson put it, as well as "the animals of the country generally, and especially those not known in the U.S." With their careful, detailed accounts of 178 plants and 122 animals, Lewis and Clark gave us a guide to assessing-and restoring-ecological health.

Before white occupation of North America, bison had ranged throughout the country, including the eastern seaboard, numbering 30 million to 60 million. Hardy explorers, scientists, and artists who came west in the decades after Lewis and Clark told of riding through bison herds for days. These herbivores literally shaped the short-grass prairie, along with prairie dogs, pronghorn, elk, and a host of carnivores. U.S. agriculture on the plains is still profiting from aeons of their fertile dung.

The era of the buffalo came to an end with the introduction of the gun and the railroad. Buffalo hunters swarmed in Lewis and Clark's wake, shipping hundreds of thousands of hides to eastern tanneries each year and leaving the plains littered with rotting flesh. (Later the bones were gathered and sold to fertilizer companies.) Railroads held buffalo-killing excursions, while some politicians advocated the extermination of the bison as a means to subdue the Plains Indian tribes by destroying their major food source. By the end of the century that began with Lewis and Clark's voyage, only a few hundred bison remained.

From this handful, bison numbers have increased to some 300,000, the vast majority of which are raised for market. Wild herds are puny compared with those of the past: The 3,000 that Clark counted in South Dakota is greater than the total number in Yellowstone National Park, where the remnant population was given refuge when the park was created in 1872. Yellowstone numbers used to be significantly higher, but that was before 1997 when Montana officials killed more than a thousand bison that had wandered beyond the park's borders. (Montana ranchers claim that bison might transmit brucellosis to the state's cattle, even though there has never been a verified case of transmission.) The buffalo slaughter continues, with less publicity, to this day.

Lewis and Clark spotted their first grizzly near what is today suburban Bismarck, North Dakota. "Our hunters killed 10 deer and a goat today and wounded a white [grizzly] bear," reported Clark. "I saw several fresh tracks of those animals which is 3 times as large as a man's track." Historically, up to 100,000 grizzlies are thought to have inhabited the American West; today only about 1,000 remain south of the Canadian border, compressed into less than 2 percent of their original range in the remotest mountain areas. Efforts to extend that range, by reintroducing grizzlies to the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem of north-central Idaho and western Montana, are being blocked by local politicians, while energy companies are proposing to drill for oil and gas in prime grizzly habitat outside Yellowstone.

The symbiosis between predators and bison is straightforward-the wolves and bears finish off the weak and injured. Other prairie relationships are less obvious. Bison grazing cycles, for example, are linked to prairie dogs, which thrive in the grasslands the herds clip short. The prairie dogs' villages support predators and other creatures and their constant feeding encourages new plant growth, which brings the bison back. Researcher Brian Miller identified 170 vertebrate species sustained by prairie dogs; higher numbers of birds and mammals live inside prairie-dog colonies than in adjacent grasslands.

Clark gave a hint of the busy ecology of a prairie-dog town in his September 7, 1804, account of "a Village of Small a[n]imals that burrow in the [ground.] Killed one and Caught one live by poreing a great quantity of Water in his hole. we attempted to dig too the beds of one of those animals, after diging 6 feet found by running a pole down that we were not half way to his Lodge, we found two frogs in the hole, and Killed a Dark rattle Snake near with a Ground rat in him, those rats are noumerous." Later Lewis noted "the largest collection of barking squirrels that we had ever yet seen; we passed thorugh a skirt of the territory of this community for about seven miles."

Once thought to number 5 billion, prairie-dog populations have declined by at least 98 percent since Lewis and Clark's day. In addition to sylvatic plague, a disease likely brought from Europe by ship rats, prairie dogs have suffered from aggressive poisoning campaigns by farmers and ranchers. No surprise, then, that species closely associated with them are also prominent in lists of the endangered and threatened: black-footed ferrets, mountain plover, ferruginous hawks, and swift foxes.

Lewis reported that he "had the burrowing squirrels roasted by way of experiment and found the flesh well flavoured and tender." The explorer's taste agrees with that of the ferret, for whom the prairie dogs are the primary food. Ferrets were actually believed to be extinct until 1981, when a small colony of 18 animals was discovered in Wyoming. Since then, captive breeding has led to the reintroduction of 1,600 ferrets in seven western and plains states as well as Mexico. And the Blackfeet Indian tribe has returned nearly a hundred swift foxes to an existing prairie-dog colony on their Montana reservation-restoring a relationship first noted by Lewis: "There is a remarkable small fox which associate in large communities and burrow in the praries something like the small wolf . . . they are extremely watchful and take refuge in their burrows which are very deep." During their first cold winter, Lewis shipped a collection of skins, horns, skeletons, and prairie plants back down the Missouri. Among these were a number of live specimens. Reaching Philadelphia alive after four months and 4,000 miles were a prairie dog and a magpie: "a remarkable Bird of the Corvus Species," wrote Lewis, "a butiful thing."

With 330 breeding bird species and 12 endemics, the Great Plains was a birdwatcher's nirvana. The explorers introduced to science Clark's nutcracker and Lewis's woodpecker, as well as the sage grouse and the lesser Canada goose. Lewis named the whistling swan ("it begins with a kind of whistleing sound and terminates in a round full note which is reather louder than the whistling, or former part") and also scribbled a description of what was likely a whooping crane: "Saw some large white cranes pass up the river . . . they are perfectly white except the large feathers of the first two joints of the wing which is black."

Hunting, habitat destruction, and egg collecting battered these beautiful five-foot birds, whose numbers were already dropping by the 1870s, and by the late 1930s bottomed at 14. Today, they are making a comeback, increasing to nearly 500-proving, as conservation biologist Daniel Botkin says, that "rarity and becoming extinct are not necessarily the same."

Lewis and Clark make many references to America's iconic bird, the bald eagle. The first was on April 10, 1805, near the confluence of the Little Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers: "[W]e shot a priarie hen and a bald eagle of which latter there are many nests in the tall cottonwood trees." Two weeks later, Lewis wrote, "The bald Eagle are more abundant here than I ever observed them in any part of the country."

In the years following World War II, the bald eagle moved from national bird to national endangered species. Like peregrine falcons, ospreys, and other birds of prey, bald eagles were rapidly disappearing because of widespread spraying of the pesticide DDT, which fatally weakened the shells of their eggs. By 1970, fewer than 40 breeding pairs of peregrines were known and the bald eagle seemed set to follow. The wheels of government turn slowly, but the possible extinction of its symbol helped spur the passage of the Endangered Species Act, and then one of the EPA's earliest decisions, the banning of DDT. By 1995, bald eagles had recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered list.

The unqualified success in restoration of the bald eagle has not extended to its older and larger cousin. On October 30, 1805, Clark reported seeing the silhouette of a huge bird, most likely come to feast on salmon: "[T]his day we Saw Some fiew of the large Buzard. Capt. Lewis shot at one, those Buzzards are much larger than any other of ther Spece, or the largest eagle, white under part of their wings, etc." On November 18, wintering on the Oregon coast, Clark wrote that "Rubin Fields Killed a Buzzard of the large Kind near the (Meat of the) whale we saw (wt. 25 lbs) measured from the tips of the wings across 9 1/2 ft."

The buzzard was a condor, now known as the California condor because it is long vanished from the Pacific Northwest, victim of shooting by ranchers, collisions with power lines, and lead poisoning. In the 1980s, all 27 of the remaining birds were taken into captivity. Today, condors are being reintroduced on the California coast near Big Sur and to Arizona's Vermilion Cliffs near the Grand Canyon, with the goal of achieving a self-sustaining population of 300 birds in the wild.

Lewis and Clark had the great fortune to see the Pacific Northwest's salmon when its drainages ran red and blue with the torrents of fish returning in the millions to spawn. (Clark even left his name on the cutthroat trout: Salmo clarkii.) Now, 200 years later, all five species of Pacific salmon have been overfished, and the great dams of the Columbia and the Snake have driven many runs to extinction. (See "Salmon's Second Coming," March/April 2000.) Rick Williams, former chair of the Independent Scientific Advisory Board, which works on salmon-recovery issues, estimates that only 1 percent of the wild salmon that existed at the time of Lewis and Clark remain-about the same sad fraction as bison and prairie dogs.

"To keep every cog and wheel," wrote premier conservation biologist Aldo Leopold, "is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." We have already lost a few parts; we'll probably never know, for instance, exactly how the passenger pigeon fit into the broader ecological scheme. Yet we have brought other species back from the brink, and Lewis and Clark, for all their promiscuous gunnery and bad spelling, left us a clear record of what a thriving ecosystem looks like. "It seemed," Lewis wrote, "as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end." We still have a chance to prove him right.


Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Montana. He is author of Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth (Johnson, 1998). Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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