If Wildlife Could Teach History

By Dr. Allan Houston

The story that North American wildlife could tell would paraphrase Dickens because it has been both “the best and worst of times.”  Pre-Colombian conditions were not pristine nor was it always an idealist place for wildlife, as the Mammoth might testify.  North America was heavily impacted by the native populations, and more so with European occupation and expansion into the bowel of the continent.

A central tenet is toppling the myth of a primeval forest so densely packed that a squirrel could have clambered from limb to limb across Tennessee.  Indeed a flying squirrel might have; but the truth is that during the indigenous people’s occupation, much of Tennessee was in grassland Savannahs, kept that way with intentionally applied fire, used for many reasons, but primarily to manage the big ungulates desired for subsistence: buffalo, elk, and deer.

Europeans would often record that they could smell the continent before seeing it. And, as late as the early 1800s, west Tennessee settlers would write about the “luxuriant” grasses and how much the Indian populations applied fire.

As Europeans came aboard the continent, they brought with them diseases the native populations had never experienced, everything from rabies to small pox.  These diseases devastated the native populations and their magnificent tool, fire, eventually had no one to apply it. 

In the absence of fire and the advent of farming, especially king cotton, the grasslands melted away and with them the elk and buffalo dwindled.  Along with the big prey animals, the major predators, the cougar and red wolf, a guild always teetering at the top of ecological pyramid, suffered local extinction.

On top of that the settlers, totally dependent on their immediate resources, their crops and farm animals, settled into the moral imperatives of controlling predators that ate up the actualities of their livelihoods. The first order of business of newly founded Fayette County, Tennessee was to place a five dollar bounty on wolves, giving certain insights into the desperations of the time.

As human populations increased, their footprint became large enough that entire species were driven to extinction.  
The passenger pigeon was once so numerous that flocks headed to the roost could black out the sun.  They were killed in numbers hard to conceive of today, used for beds, food and even fertilizer.

Even such a well informed luminary as Audubon suggested the passenger pigeon was inexhaustible. But, in 1914, Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati zoo. The same sad tale applied to the Carolina Parakeet and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, a bird often called the “Lord God” bird because those who saw it were often over-awed by its size.

Much of what happened in those days was driven with a sense of limitless resources, and the realities of survival needs were outweighed any form of a natural resource consciousness.

But, commercial hunting also took tremendous tolls.  Deer, beaver and ducks were driven to local extinction or deeply depressed populations.

However, the Lacy Act of 1900, brought to life with the concerns of sport hunters, prohibited commercial exploration of wildlife. From there a natural resource ethos began to form as people understood their impacts on limited resources.

Hawk populations are a case in point.  Chickens were something of a litmus paper on the landscape. If Sunday‘s dinner was pecking in the yard on Saturday morning and it wound up being a hawk’s dinner instead, there was a rather large motive for hawk-a-cide.

That, along with DDT, drove raptor populations to the brink.  Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring brought to the American consciousness an ecological perspective that we must hold ourselves accountable as being a part of the whole.

In the ensuing years much has changed.  Some hawk populations have increased 2,000 percent.  During the past 40 years Tennessee has become a much richer place in terms of wildlife.  The beaver, with all of its associates, animals like the otter and cottonmouth have returned, along with the whitetail deer, turkey, and elk. The groundhog and armadillo are here.  And the coyote, an animal that has been expanding its range for as long as anyone has known much about coyotes, arrived.
So, it has indeed been the best and worst of times, with perhaps the greatest lesson coming from a little bird named Martha who might tell us to never forget our place as a keystone species, the one so many others depend on. 

Editor’s Note: In early October 2021, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared that more than 20 animals and one plant were extinct. And climate change is exacerbating the problem of extinction. A report released by the United Nations last year estimated that one million plant and animal species are at risk of being gone for good. See the following articles about this topic.

The New York Times: “Protected Too Late: U.S. Officials Report More Than 20 Extinctions:” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/28/climate/endangered-animals-extinct.html
NPR: “The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and More Than 20 Other Species Have Gone Extinct:” https://www.npr.org/2021/09/29/1041393172/u-s-says-ivory-billed-woodpecker-and-more-than-20-other-species-have-gone-extinc
NPR: “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Plans To Classify 23 Species As Extinct:” https://www.npr.org/2021/09/30/1041793679/u-s-fish-and-wildlife-service-plans-to-classify-23-species-as-extinct]

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