America's Great Plains once possessed one of the grandest wildlife spectacles of the world, equaled only by such places as the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, or the veld of South Africa. Pronghorn antelope, gray wolves, bison, coyotes, wild horses, and grizzly bears: less than two hundred years ago these creatures existed in such abundance that John James Audubon was moved to write, "it is impossible to describe or even conceive the vast multitudes of these animals."
In a work that is at once a lyrical evocation of that lost splendor and a detailed natural history of these charismatic species of the historic Great Plains, veteran naturalist and outdoorsman Dan Flores draws a vivid portrait of each of these animals in their glory--and tells the harrowing story of what happened to them at the hands of market hunters and ranchers and ultimately a federal killing program in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Great Plains with its wildlife intact dazzled Americans and Europeans alike, prompting numerous literary tributes. American Serengeti takes its place alongside these celebratory works, showing us the grazers and predators of the plains against the vast opalescent distances, the blue mountains shimmering on the horizon, the great rippling tracts of yellowed grasslands. Far from the empty "flyover country" of recent times, this landscape is alive with a complex ecology at least 20,000 years old--a continental patrimony whose wonders may not be entirely lost, as recent efforts hold out hope of partial restoration of these historic species.
Written by an author who has done breakthrough work on the histories of several of these animals--including bison, wild horses, and coyotes--American Serengeti is as rigorous in its research as it is intimate in its sense of wonder--the most deeply informed, closely observed view we have of the Great Plains' wild heritage.
Dan L. Flores is an American historian who specializes in cultural and environmental studies of the American West. He holds the A.B. Hammond Chair in Western History at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana.
Flores is the author of eight books, including: Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest (1999); The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains (2001); and Southern Counterpart to Lewis and Clark: The Freeman and Custis Expedition of 1806 , a 2002 study of the Red River Expedition, a southwestern journey authorized by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson at the same time that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were completing their journey along the Missouri River from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Northwest from 1804-1806. The Red River Expedition, led by Thomas Freeman and Dr. Peter Custis, never received the attention garnered by Lewis and Clark and is mostly unknown to most educators and many historians as well because Freeman and Custis were turned back by the Spanish before they had accomplished their goals.
Flores' work has also appeared in such popular venues as Texas Monthly magazine, The Big Sky Journal, Southwest Art, and High Country News. His publications have been recognized by the Western History Association, Western Writers of America, the University of Oklahoma Press, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and the Texas State Historical Association.
Hugely depressing account of the Serengeti that used to be on our Great Plains, although that in no way detracts from the book's quality. It's well researched and the author does not shy from having a strong opinion, which is refreshing. Each chapter presents the case of a different animal from the Plains and I didn't even know some of them were (and sometimes are) there. The quotes from historical travelers add to the narrative an exciting, majestic quality in their awe at scenes of wildlife. I truly wish I had been able to witness the way it used to be. I highly recommend reading this regardless of whether, but especially if, you are an American.
I love Dan Flores' writing and I love my beautiful flyover state, Nebraska. I mourn for what it should be, and this brought into sharp relief everything that we lost relatively recently in terms of history. His books run a bit dry at times, but they're still dear to me.
Ideally, this book is meant for people who need convincing that the American great plains are a land of majestic beauty. I’m already onboard.
I’ve driven across the USA, coast-to-coast, four times. I always joke that there will never be a fifth time. I’d do it in a train, but I’m through with cars. I’ve never been to the Serengeti in Africa, but I’ve seen enormous herds of bison and antelope in the American west. Elk, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, and all kinds of bird species all along the western states.
I remember reading a magazine article somewhere years ago about how the USA should create and enormous grasslands national park that would be a tourist destination to rival the African Serengeti, which is basically what the author proposes at the end of this book.
Once upon a time, the Great Plains of the western U.S. resembled the Serengeti of Africa, a vast prairie inhabited by abundant wildlife. Each year, during the wet season, grasslands produce far more new biomass than forests do, per unit of land. The greenery converts sunlight into carbohydrates, nutrients necessary for the existence of animal life in the ecosystem. Thus, the usually sunny plains are a vast array of solar collectors that generate food for the vast array of animal life. Bison meat is highly concentrated solar energy.
Dan Flores is an environmental historian, and he specializes in Big History, which focuses on entire ecosystems, and regards humans as just one group of the many actors on the stage. Each species of plant and animal plays a role in the living drama. In this book, American Serengeti, Flores described the drama of the Great Plains from a perspective that spanned millions of years, going back long before humans. It highlights the sagas of six species.
The notion of “climax state” asserts that ecosystems can achieve enduring balance and stability. Flores doesn’t believe in climax states. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors succeeded in existing for a very long time in a low impact manner. The fact that agriculture emerged independently in multiple locations indicates that the process could sometimes wobble out of balance, and whirl into ecological hurricanes. We gradually expanded into new ecosystems, improved hunting methods, grew in numbers, and began bumping into limits.
Before Siberian hunters discovered America, the Great Plains were home to many species of large mammals, none of which had evolved adaptations for living near packs of aggressive primates with spears, dogs, and fire. Between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago, 32 genera and at least 50 species went extinct. Losers included camels, mammoths, giant ground sloths, horses, steppe lions, dire wolves, long-toothed cats, long-legged hyenas, giant long-horned bison, and many others. In addition to overhunting, it’s likely that intense climate change also played a role in the surge of megafauna extinctions.
Eventually, the species that escaped extinction managed to adapt to the humans, and share the plains for several thousand years. Then, two centuries ago, powerful primate hurricanes whirled in from Europe and launched a devastating war on the Great Plains ecosystem. Flores says that today, “you feel as if you’re standing at the end of an immense line of dominos….”
Pronghorn antelopes evolved from ancestors that emerged 25 million years ago. They are the fastest mammals on the plains. Males can zoom along at 55 mph (88 km/h), and females at 65 to 70 mph (104 to 112 km/h). Pronghorns can run at 90 percent of their top speed for two miles (3.2 km). They can easily outrun today’s wolves and coyotes, only their fawns are vulnerable to predation.
Pronghorns evolved traits to evade a number of speedy predators, all of which blinked out at least 10,000 years ago. They are very well adapted to a reality that no longer exists. Unfortunately, they are unable to leap fences, a fact that has benefitted their exterminators. By 1900, they had declined from at least 15 million to 13,000. Today, there are 700,000.
The coyote story is fascinating. Indians had great respect for them. Coyotes were often tricksters in their folktales — exceptionally clever, but their cleverness often backfired. Along with wolves and jackals, coyotes evolved in America five million years ago. By one million years ago, some wolves and jackals migrated west into Eurasia. Gray wolves returned to America 20,000 years ago, and began bumping into coyotes, leading to friction. Evolution solved this problem by making wolves larger, and coyotes smaller, adjusting them for different niches.
American settlers hated coyotes, leading to decades of extermination campaigns. By inserting strychnine pellets into rotting carcasses, one lad could kill 350 coyotes in ten days — far easier than shooting them. Many millions have been killed, and the U.S. continues to kill 500,000 every year. Efforts at extermination almost always backfire. Apparently it’s impossible to permanently eliminate them.
Coyotes, like humans, have fission-fusion families — they sometimes work in packs, and other times as individuals. This versatility promoted their survival. Wolves are solely pack hunters, an unfortunate limitation. Coyotes are fertile at one year old, and their average litters have 5.7 pups. But when food is abundant, or their numbers are dwindling, they have larger litters. Persecution also inspires them to migrate and colonize new lands. They now range from Alaska to Panama, in all Canadian provinces, and all U.S. states except Hawaii. They’ve learned how to thrive in cities.
Horses, pronghorns, wolves, and coyotes originated in America. The ancestors of horses emerged 57 million years ago. At some point, the horse family discovered Asia, and spread to Europe and Africa. In North America, they were extinct by 10,000 years ago. Spanish settlers later brought them to New Mexico, where many escaped in 1680. They fled into an ecosystem for which evolution had already fine-tuned them, and where extinction had eliminated their primary predators. Paradise!
Given these conditions, they were tremendously successful. One observer noted, “As far as the eye could extend, nothing over the dead level prairie was visible except a dense mass of horses, and the trampling of their hooves sounded like the road of the surf on a rocky coast.”
For Indians, horses provided huge benefits — with hunting, hauling, raiding, and rustling. They gained wealth by capturing wild horses and selling them at white trading centers. A number of tribes abandoned agriculture, moved to the plains, and became bison hunters. Comanches were the dominant tribe. They were eager to trade horses for cool stuff, fully intending to steal their horses back from the palefaces at the first opportunity.
Today, wild horses baffle Americans. They compete for forage with livestock that have market value. Americans are unwilling to consume organic, grass fed, high protein, low fat horse meat — ordinary food in countries including Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Germany, Indonesia, Poland, and China. In the 1800s, pompous Anglo-Americans sneered at the disgusting meat that only low class immigrants would eat. Thus, a cultural taboo evolved. Countless horses ended up in dog food cans. Today, instead of raising native animals fine-tuned for the Great Plains, like horses and bison, we continue to raise animals fine-turned for Europe — a region having a mild, moist climate, and a blend of vegetation optimal for raising cattle and sheep.
Grizzly bears were hammered in the last two centuries. Settlers detested big strong animals that loved having lunch dates with settlers. Five hundred years ago, the entire western half of the U.S. was grizzly country, home to 100,000 bears. Travelers sometimes saw 30 or 40 in a day. By 1900, only a few hundred remained, hiding in the mountains. Today, there are zero bears on the plains, and maybe 1,000 close to national parks.
Giant long-horned bison from Eurasia discovered America about 800,000 years ago (today’s bison are dwarfed). Both bison and pronghorns survived the megafauna extinctions. Since then, both have coevolved. Bison prefer to eat grasses, which encourages the growth of plants that pronghorns like. Pronghorns prefer flowering plants and shrubs, shifting the advantage back to grasses. They don’t compete for the same grub.
Following the megafauna extinctions, bison had few grazing competitors or predators, so their numbers swelled to maybe 20 to 30 million (others say 60). Once upon a time, bison ranged from northwest Canada to Florida. Sometimes a single herd took more than a week to pass. “The buffalo was the essence of ecological adaptation to North America, perfectly suited to the grasslands.” They survived drastic climate changes, and 100 centuries of human hunters. Sadly, it took less than 100 years to reduce them to 1,073 animals by 1886. They stood in the path of progress and civilization.
Before Indians got horses, hunting was far more difficult. Fewer bison were taken, so scarcity was not often experienced. Hunting did not seem to diminish their numbers, and many believed that the animals magically regenerated, the dead were renewed. “The horse cast a dark shadow over the bison herds… no Indian could see that shadow.” Then came the crazy Americans, for whom bison were walking gold pieces, which the magic of the marketplace deposited into the piggy bank.
The ancestors of wolves, coyotes, and dogs originated in America five million years ago. Some wolves migrated into Asia, and spread to Europe and Africa. Following the extinction spasm, a number of large predators left the stage, leaving a huge niche for both bison and wolves. Wolves almost acted like shepherds to herds of bison and other large grazers. They ate maybe four of every ten bison calves. When horses were reintroduced, yummy colts were added to the menu.
As settlers, market hunters, and sportsmen moved west, they killed lots of game. Wolves feasted on the banquet of leftovers. The bison extermination campaign raged from the 1860s to 1880s. As bison were depleted, market hunters turned to elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and deer. Countless millions of animals were slaughtered. Then, the generous settlers began raising delicious wolf chow, dimwitted critters called cattle and sheep. Enjoying 10,000 years of fine dining, wolves may have expanded up to 1.5 million animals. Around 1850, America declared war on wild predators. Wolves were shot, roped, gassed, stomped, strangled, poisoned, and trapped. By 1923, wolves had been erased from the Great Plains.
The book closes with a discussion of recent efforts to rewild the west — remove the fences, and let bison, wolves, and others return to wild freedom. A few projects are underway, and others are being considered. For decades, Americans have been migrating out of the plains. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, nuked many farms. Then came irrigation, extracting fossil water from the Ogallala Aquifer — an adventure in water mining that’s beginning to sing its death song. Dust is returning. Climate change may be the settlers’ last stand. It’s expected to make the plains hotter and drier, maybe a desert.
“Before it was de-buffaloed, de-wolved, and de-grassed, the nineteenth-century Great Plains was one of the marvels of the world,” writes Flores. “It took 13,000 years but the one, singular charismatic megafauna that walked upright did finally succeed in vanquishing, indeed nearly obliterating, all the others and bending the plains to its will.” His book is fascinating, easy to read, short, and sad — an illuminating and uncomfortable look in the mirror.
See my review of Flores’ earlier book, The Natural West, HERE. YouTube has some Flores videos. In 2010, National Geographic released a gorgeous and informative video titled American Serengeti.
a moving snapshot of what we had on the Great Plains and a hanging-by-a-thread dream of what we might have again ... Dan doesn't resort to name calling, rather he paints a picture and in the process gives us a treasure ... none of us will see the Plains as they were intended, as they evolved 10,000 years ago, but I am thankful that I now have that wild place in my mind's eye, it makes me a more complete American
Dan Flores was my favorite professor, grad school and undergraduate combined. Learning with him remains one of my greatest achievements. He’s a lyrical, insightful, and inspiring writer. His American Serengeti (2016) was a pleasure to read.
This book shares the stories of the megafauna (relatively speaking) that have survived the great extinctions of 10,000 years ago and 100 years ago: pronghorn, coyotes, horses, grizzlies, bison, and wolves. They survived—horses didn’t survive the first wave in North America but have survived the most recent kill-fest—as their habitat, the Great Plains, an American Serengeti, was assaulted by modern civilization as defined by Clovis and 19th/20th-century American cultures. As my mentor argues, “North America’s wildness produced enough unease about the thinness of civilization’s veneer that we reacted with a numb, almost instinctive orgy of destruction aimed at the animals that embodied the wild continent.” What were/are we thinking? We kill the other and, in the process, kill ourselves and our history.
The book contains Dan’s classic humor: “To the wolves, sheep and cattle must have seemed animals that needed killing—all of them helpless, infirm, and lame witted.” it also has his amazing, lyrical writing: “But standing there under that and impossibly lit sky, watching ducks arrowing low over the surface of the water and a small herd of mule deer pogoing away through hoodoos and pedestal rocks at my sudden appearance, while a coyote yipped a dawn serenade across the river, after a few moments it came to me.” He was standing across the Missouri River from the white cliffs and contemplating all that has been lost in the Great Plains ecosystem as well as all that could be saved. This book has plenty of fodder for contemplation and hope for the future of these megafauna and their human counterparts. I highly recommend it.
"How we react to animals is in part primate hard-wiring. The thump in the dark, the start to full waking, the pounding heart can transport us back to our African origins in a fraction of a second. But mostly what we think when "bear" comes to mind emerges from the tangled mess of software programs that is culture. What we've heard, what we've read, what we've inferred, what others have implied, for some of us what we've experienced-- all these and other ways of absorbing information-- go into creating a construction in our minds like "bear." When an Idaho governor publicly opposed recovering grizzly bears in the Bitterroot Mountains at the turn of the twenty-first century because he said didn't want "massive, flesh-eating carnivores" in Idaho, the bear he imagined was a very specific kind of historical memory. But many other kinds of bears look back at us, a maddening but fascinating aspect of the world."
"There must have been a powerful cultural psychology at work in nineteenth-century America, a Freudian feedback loop with respect to the continent. North America's wildness produced enough unease about the thinness of civilization's veneer that we reacted with a numb, almost instinctive orgy of destruction aimed at the animals that embodied the wild continent. "Non-human nature," writer D.H. Lawrence once wrote, "is the outward and visible expression of the mystery that confronts us when we look into the depths of our own being." For much of American history that exercise, when we've indulged it, has not pleased us, producing a self-hatred that we've deflected outward. As another writer who sought to understand our relationship with nature, Paul Shepard, put it in one of his last books, "By disdaining the beast in us, we grow away from the world instead of into it." That line stands as an evocative summary of much of the history of the American Great Plains."
"Almost a century later, in 1690 and far, far inland, a Hudson's Bay Indian trader named Henry Kelsey was traveling overland on the grassy yellow plains of Saskatchewan when his party encountered a grizzly. This was not a view from the safety of a sailing vessel, but face-to-face on the ground, and Kelsey's first reaction was to shoot. He thus became the first European of record to kill a grizzly bear, and event pregnant with portents for the future of bears and of the Great Plains. Kelsey's act greatly alarmed his Indian companions, who warned him that he had struck down "a god."
"American attitudes toward wildlife like bears by the Jeffersonian Age were complex and deeply internalized across thousands of years of human history. Genetic programming from as far back as the Paleolithic obviously preservers a human memory of giant bears. Mammals of the Northern Hemisphere, they would have been a new thing for modern humans migrating out of Africa and into Europe and Asia 45,000 years ago. Our Neanderthal ancestors would have long since been familiar with bears, but our own species likely first confronted them in southern Europe."
"In 1800 it was inhabited by perhaps 2 million Indians, 25-30 million buffalo in times of good weather, and perhaps 50-60,000 grizzlies. So many grizzlies, indeed, that Ernest Thompson Seton says Spanish travelers along the rivers of Northern California could easily see 30-40 grizzlies in a single day."
"Of course no one except the Indians thought to stop shooting up grizzlies for a very long time to come. A twenty-first century American has to pose the question- why, once they'd collected specimens for science, did Lewis and Clark and other nineteenth-century Americans feel such a compulsion to react to animals in the West by shooting them? What had history lodged in the American psyche that made the left-and-right, wholesale slaughter of animals- more than 500 million of them in Barry Lopez's estimate, although no one can ever know- such a part of the history of the West, and especially of the grand grasslands of the Great Plains? Why, for example, would the US Army officer and popular writer Colonel Richard Dodge, along with his four companions, feel it a worthy expenditure of their time to slaughter, in three weeks of lounging about on New Mexico's Cimarron River, 127 buffalos, 13 deer and pronghorns, 154 turkeys, 420 waterfowl, 187 quail, 129 plovers and snipe, assorted herons, cranes, hawks, owls, badgers, raccoons, and ever 143 songbirds? According to Dodge's obsessively kept scorecard, that was a total of 1,262 animals, many of which had functioned only as convenient live targets for bloodlust."
"In 1991 the writers Tim Clark and Denise Casey compiled a volume they titled Tales of the Grizzly:" Thirty-Nine Stories of Grizzly Bear Encounters in the Wilderness, which chronicle grizzly/human encounters in the Northern Rocky Mountains from 1804 through 1929. Their collection allowed them to chart what they decided were five distinct periods in the evolution of the American relationship with grizzly bears: (1) A Native American period, when bears were mythic fgures, teachers of medicines, helpers, a species whose physiological similarity to humans offered the possibility for transmigration in both directions- a relationship with nature, Clark and Casey asserted, that would have been "almost incomprehensible to most modern Americans." (2) An Exploration/Fur Trade period, exemplified by the grizzly encounters of Lewis and Clark and Jacob Fowler, which exposed the fallacy of assumptions about human dominance and faith in technology, and created the initial impressions of grizzlies as the horrible bear, the wilderness fiend that offered Americans a reminder of the dangers of uncontrolled, chaotic nature. Periods (3) and (4) in this chronology are the periods of conquest and settlement, when homesteaders resolved that it was a Christian duty to eradicate grizzlies and other formidable wildlife in order to liberate the wilderness for God and the Grand Old Party. During this phase, tens of thousands of grizzly bears were shot on sight, and not just to wipe them off the plains for the arrival of the livestock industry. Settlers killed 423 grizzlies in the North Cascade Mountains alone just between 1846 and 1851. In the early twentieth century the Great American War on grizzly bears featured an alliance between livestock interests and the US Biological Survey,, whose hunters made official the war on wolves, coyotes, lions, and bears, in the process creating an early federal subsidy for the ranching industry in the West." "That same Progressive era witnessed the fifth period, the official rise of sport hunting and its replacement of market hunting, which now had a black eye. For the animals in the sights, of course, it wasn't so easy to tell the difference. But many sport hunters took to heart President Theodore Roosevelt's advice that "the most thrilling moments of an American's hunter's life are those in which, with every sense on the alert and with nerves strung to the highest point, he is following alone... the fresh and bloody footprints of an angered grisly." For hunters, eliminating "bad animals" like predators made sense not just in terms of growing the numbers of huntable elk and deer; going after grizzlies also had become the ultimate nostalgic capture of the vanishing frontier, the hunter's version of a Frederic Remington or Charlie Russell painting. As Roosevelt put it, tellingly, "no other triumph of American hunting can compare with the victory to be thus gained."
"Contemporary animal advocates assert an apparently radical doctrine: that individual animals have rights, and that the circle of ethical treatment- which in the Western tradition has expanded through history to confer rights to individuals of groups once denied legal standing, such as women, Native Americans, African Americans, now gay and transgender people- must and ought to be extended to animals on an individual basis."
"At the same, without trying to appropriate anyone's culture or romanticize anyone's past, it is difficult not to conclude that a way of thinking that recognized bears as essentially humans in another form, thus conferred individuality to bears, and thus a corpus of rights to bears- among them the simple right to exist- must have played some role in the historical fact that more than 5 million people and 100,000 bears were able to live together in America for so long. "
"Why does the buffalo matter? It strikes some as a slightly comic and ungainly holdover from a faded world, yet the truth is that this single animal's end-game exemplifies the whole declensionist story of the relationship between Americans and nature over the past five centuries. The buffalo was the essence of ecological adaptation to North America, perfectly suited to the grasslands of the interior of the continent from Alberta and Saskatchewan southward to Texas and Mexico. It was the wildebeest-plus of the American Serengeti, since the Pleistocene extinctions had left it with grazing competitors, allowing it to attain a biomass wildebeests were never able to achieve. It was a survivor of the great extinctions and of more than 100 centuries of dying at human hands, and yet in the space of less than a century we very nearly erased it from existence. No other environmental story in American history, and there is plenty of competition, produced quite so dramatic an ending."
"The historian Richard White has a single word for the callous disregard for life, the rotting stench that signaled the arrival of civilization to the plains, the brief and inconsequential economic returns of eradicating the buffalo: pathetic."
"In effect we dismantled and demolished a 10,000 year-old ecology, very likely one of the most exciting natural spectacles in the world, in the space of a half-century. There were people who made careers out of that loss, among them the artists Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington and the writer Zane Grey, and what they mourned was what they saw as life in"the wilderness," a thrilled-to-the-marrow life among native people and thronging wildlife and nature. As Grey believed, the West had offered the world once last chance to live in a state of nature as natural men and women. And then modern America had withdrawn the offer."
Great dissertation of the demise of the large animals of the Great Plains of America. I loved the topics divided amongst the big 6, pronghorn antelope, coyote, buffalo, wild horses, grizzly bear, and gray wolf, with a chapter dedicated to each. Very informative!
I didn't particularly appreciate slipping in political rhetoric such as climate change and politics with no deference to the subject at hand. For instance, right-leaning folks are assumed to have a natural antithesis to the plight of these animals because of their conservative views. Here is a quote from the book:
"As with most visionary endeavors, misinformation abounds, including articles in the conservative press carry inflammatory titles like "Bison loving billionaires rile ranchers with land grab."
This referred to the attempted acquisition of land in Montana to create a place big enough to bring these animals back and have them live in a natural setting.
Well, I had to go read the article. It may have had a line or two talking about a rancher's concern, but for the most part, the article was glowing in its praise for people trying to build a new National Park.
Why does it seem like everything written in the past decade has to have these subtle inclusionary comments sprinkled through their writing? Can the topic stand on its own without the running commentary?
Really interesting premise, looking at the large animals of the American plains as a parallel of the large animals of the African Serengeti. Has some good moments and interesting history but is ultimately marred by some strange, and at times unintelligible, writing. I had to skip the chapter about the grizzly bear after struggling through several paragraphs of nonsense sentences. Is the kindle version unedited? Other times the history come to screeching halt as the author slips into random first person vignettes from their life. Overall the execution left a lot to be desired despite the great premise.
Dances with Wolves and a textbook have a lovechild
2.5. Written with the luxury of 21st century morality and hindsight. The author often diverges from a scientific look at the NA Midwest, pre & post Anglo contact, to hop on the conveniently located soapbox and anthropomorphize the animals of the plains while also falling into the "noble savage" paradigm that I thought went out of style with Robinson Crusoe.
Also doesn't cover all the cool animals in enough detail. More direwolf, American Lion, Smilodon Fatalis etc
Well-written, accessible, and interesting overview of the past, present, and future of the mammalian megafauna of the Great Plains from the Canadian border (and discussing Canada a few times as well) south to Texas and Mexico (though the vast majority of the book deals with the United States). Interspersed with a few anecdotes of the author’s travels in the Great Plains, encounters with its wildlife, and his experiences with his wolf-dog hybrid companions, the chapters were a good combination of the natural history of a particular species, its history going back into the Pleistocene, and associated human history, including sadly the inevitable persecution and in some cases at the very least regional extermination of it along with notes on present conservation practices and future proposals. The writing wasn’t dry and occasionally was quite witty and was always informative.
The opening chapter was a good overview, heavy on comparisons to both the present Serengeti and very interestingly the Serengeti that once existed on the Great Plains, the Pleistocene Eden that included among other animals mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, native horse species, and camels. There was also some interesting coverage of various early European and American explorations of the natural wonders of the Great Plains.
The next chapter focused on the pronghorn, noting the formerly once vast numbers that used to exist on the Great Plains. I learned a lot about the pronghorn though admittedly it wasn’t an animal I had read much about previously. Among other facts discussed was that the species can’t jump (making dealing with fences an enormous challenge), that it evolved to be incredibly fast (in response to now long extinct predators such as various big cats, with today only the fawns really vulnerable to natural predators and today adults essentially are over designed as it were), the species had a range that overlapped that with the bison but tended to range more westerly and southerly with the bison more eastern and northern, and pronghorn meat is very lean with very little fat and was never really sought after much as a food source, not until well into the time American settlers were interacting with the species.
Then came a great chapter on coyotes, not a surprise at all given another of the author’s books, the well regarded _Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History_. A lot is covered, including Native American view points of the coyote, comparisons to jackals as far as their ecological niche goes, early European and American explorers view of this “small wolf,” and the tremendously ineffective campaigns to exterminate them, failing again and again (and why this is, largely having to do with coyote responses to persecution, chiefly by having larger litters and spreading into and colonizing vacant niches).
Horses came next, not an animal I ever thought about in terms of Great Plains ecology and human history but the author showed I was mistaken to not consider them. After a time there were vast numbers of wild horses, filling in a niche vacated during the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions. Though natural history was definitely discussed, this chapter more than any other had a lot of human history, as Flores provided a very interesting discussion of the horse trade, how it affected and was affected by Native American tribes and the Spanish in North America, how the horse itself transformed Native American tribal culture and economics, and discussed why the northern fur trade is so much better known than the Great Plains horse trade (among other things, a great deal of infrastructure is required to move furs while horses, always traded live, could move on their own and thus there was less paperwork for later historians as there just wasn’t as much infrastructure to keep track of, and also given particularly in dealing with Spanish America and issues of taxation and contraband, there was an enormous economic incentive to lie or hide gains from the horse trade).
Then we get bears, brown bears or grizzly bears to be specific. Probably the most exciting chapter as Flores related several true life tales of people fighting or hunting bears (sometimes coming to quite bad ends), it was also the main chapter that really focused on the American tendency to shoot just about any wildlife on sight for so many years and tried to analyze why this was.
Then came probably my favorite chapter, the one on bison. Though I had read a little on bison before I learned a lot, with Flores discussing among other things how the Great Plains for some 8500 years was a Native American managed, fire-maintained ecosystem designed to create optimal conditions for bison (and for pronghorn), the role and importance of bison in Native American creation myths, how the story of the American near extermination of bison got white washed by a mythologizing of market hunters who were slaughtering the bison at the behest of the federal government all in a bid to control the Plains Indians and get them onto reservations (Flores not discounting this as a motive at times but also emphasizing really what was at work was individual greed and unregulated capitalism, with Native Americans also participating in the slaughter, noting among other things there was no myth or fact of a slaughter of bison to control Native Americans or First Nations in Canada, but nevertheless herds there too were practically wiped out), talking about other factors in the end of the great bison herds (such as grazing competition from horses, diseases like rinderpest spread by domestic cattle, and the end of climatic conditions like the Little Ice Age, which were cooler and moister and favored the grasses the bison fed on), and relating the history of the attempts to save the bison, crediting conservation pioneers with saving the species at a time conservation was in its infancy, noting how close we came to losing bison completely.
Then there was a chapter on wolves, noting again many interesting facts and stories, including how when Americans arrived on the Great Plains wolves have little fear of them and could sometimes be dispatched by hand, how wolves train their young to hunt and at least in North America hunting humans is not one of the prey templates parents instill in their young, how if I remember correctly at one time scientists thought there were 23 subspecies of wolves but now think there is more like 4 subspecies, discussed the differences between wolf species that had been in North American millions of years and those that arrived over the Bering Land Bridge, the story of wolf-dog hybrids, and the terrible hunting and poisoning campaigns against wolves (noting in detail how wolves suffer when poisoned).
The final section dealt with the past, present, and future of preserving the Great Plains and rewilding any portion of it. Lots of discussion of the history of the National Park Service when it came to preserving the Great Plains, something historically it wasn’t interested in as the focus was mainly on vertical scenery like canyons and mountains and much less on preserving ecosystems, noting the history and importance of three northern plains NPS units (Badlands, Wind Cave, and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks), the lack of a southern plains NPS unit, the story of how Palo Duro Canyon in Texas almost became a national park unit, in part to preserve a southern plains Serengeti, and a discussion of proposed rewilding concepts, especially the Buffalo Commons concept (and rancher opposition to it).
A fantastic look at a stretch of the United States which really deserved the attention Mr. Flores brought to it. I thought the way the book was organized helped to frame the central theme of the book as well as its main characters. What could simply be classified as a book about conservation was brought to light through the diligent research and representation of each of the major fauna.
Mr. Flores' first chapter tells the basic story of human habitation of the Great Plains, from thousands of years ago to modern day. Each subsequent chapter then repeats the pattern but with the focus on a different animal: the buffalo, wolf, coyote, wild horses, pronghorn antelope, and the grizzly bear.
The effect of this focused attention is profound, I walked away feeling both an understanding of and deep respect for each of these animals. It made his closing chapter, basically a plea for concerted efforts to restore and preserve significant portions of the Great Plains to its former glory, easier to understand and support. In fact, the case was so compelling as to make the idea of an American Serengeti seem like a worthy pursuit.
If you admire any of the animals listed, have spent any amount of time watching them, or live in our around some of the other major preserves/parks in the US, I'd recommend this book as worth your time and attention.
Excellent book and I gained a greater appreciation for the animals covered here, particularly their resilience. It’s tragic what happened but the silver lining is that serious efforts are now undertaken in the last several decades to restore these great lands. I appreciated the chiding of the dismissal of “flyover country” which does this beautiful and majestic land a great disservice. Highly recommended for everyone, especially those who don’t have a full appreciation of American culture, including her wildlife.
People often call Yellowstone the American Serengeti. I've always wondered about that nickname. Although it is the only place in the continental United States that you can see so many large wild animals in such a concentrated area, it doesn't come close the the actual Serengeti in Africa as far as species diversity and individual numbers of animals.
Flores here suggests that places like Yellowstone and the Great Plains used to be so, but are no longer. He also suggests that the American Serengeti could exist again, if only we'll allow it.
Some sections were a little bit slow, but the chapters on wild horses, coyotes, and bison were worth reading a second time. Also, the final chapter on loving the plains should be taught in schools. So many people dismiss the "flyover country" that we do a disservice to one of the most important ecological regions on the globe.
This is a great overview of the plight of the different plains animals that suffered at the hand of the white men as they settled the west. I think this story is an incredibly vital part of American history that most know little to nothing about. In my opinion, it's possibly the most important piece of history for anyone that identifies as a conservationist or environmentalist to understand. Reading both this and his other book Coyote America are both highly recommended.
In this great read, Flores captures the inhumane history of our destruction of the wondrous wildlife and ecology of the American West, specifically the Great Plains region. From prehistorical theories based on discoveries from the Pleistocene era to modern attempts at rewinding the region, this left me wishing for a time machine to go back and see the awesome beauty of a natural spectacle that is said to have rivaled those on the plains of Africa, if not to also slap the shit out of the white Americans who swept through this land with destruction and wanton slaughter as their objective.
Good overview of the American plains from the pleistocene awesomeness to the kinda sad present. Really liked the format where each chapter is a different animal. However, I could not stand the writing style that Flores used, where he would break up- with such frequency, much like the parcels of public land that remain in the great plains- a sentence, such that you completely forget, as you're reading along through his book, what was said at the very beginning- as I've attempted to do here, with an abundance of pretentious vocabulary, commas, and hyphens.
There is an incredible amount of history, both human and wildlife packed into this book. I learned a lot about the Great Plains and the book left me with such a sadness for a place that has been stolen well before I ever had a chance to see it as it was. I have been to the African Serengeti and to think that we had that here in the US is not only mind-blowing but very very sad that it is no longer.
I read this book via audio and unfortunately I found it exceptionally dry to listen to. The narrators voice is so flat that I constantly drifted off in my thoughts. I ended up getting the book from the library just so I could re-read the parts I missed! So I would not recommend the audio version of this. At least with written version you can skim as needed or reread it where it gets a bit overfilled with detail.
I’m still glad I read this as I feel a much bigger sense of awe for this region and the animals that live(d) in it. I hope that with all the various organizations working towards rewilding it via preservation efforts that some semblance of it can be returned for us and future generations.
This morning my wife and I visited Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and saw half a dozen bison that are descendants of the more than 10 million bison that once freely roamed the North America's Great Plains along with pronghorn, grizzly bears, wolves, wild horses, and coyotes. In American Serengeti Dan Flores tells how Americans changed the Great Plains from a magical haven for wildlife into a dull expanse of cattle ranches and farms. It's a sad story with a plethora of villains and very few heroes, but one worth reading before we destroy what little of this fascinating ecosystem we have left.
This is a really fascinating read. I particularly like how Flores incorporates Big History - the period of time well before Europeans arrived on the continent, stretching back to the Pleistocene. His discussion of the charismatic megafauna that onced roamed the American Plains is fascinating, and it sets the stage well for what came in later millennia. I really had no idea of the scale and rapidity of big predator killing by bounty hunters in the second half of the 19th century. This book makes you yearn to see the animal life that was here a mere 150 years ago, before it was almost entirely wiped off the continent.
This book paints a truly inspiring picture of what the great plains of North America had once been like, coupled with a heartbreaking chronicle of the demise of this wilderness and the animals that once roamed there in vast numbers. I have come away from this reading dismayed by what our ancestors did, and what we are still doing throughout so much of the world, and yet inspired to do something to help undo that damage.
Earlier this year, I decided to reconnect with my youthful roots wedged in the dirt of animal encyclopedias and Zoo Tycoon games by reading books about our world's wonderful wildlife. It's been... a bit of a mixed bag. I've only been reading books from library sales (like the one I got this at, in May of 2022), which I may need to rectify next year. Don't get wrong; none of the five I've read this year have been bad, they're just not always what I'm looking for. What I wanted out of American Serengeti was a lesson in the biology of these animals, but I ended up getting a sermon of Great Plains history with a side of very interesting evolutionary biology. I suppose I'll talk about each of the animals covered to describe to you what Dan Flores really wanted to write about.
The introduction is fascinating, introducing the concept that up till 10,000 years ago, give or take, the American prairies were more diverse and stunning than the African ones until some mysterious extinction event wiped out all of the big animals except for the ones that we see today. I find this fascinating and actually plan on writing an alternative-history story where this extinction event didn't happen. The introduction also served as a gateway to the great slaughter of the 1800s, which I had vague recollection of, but would be shocked by it during its rediscovery.
We start with pronghorns, probably the least-familiar animal covered. We learn about their evolutionarily history, which is very interesting, and then about some expeditionaries' first-hand accounts of discovering them. It's my favorite segment in the book. I think that the horse chapter was next (although you shouldn't quote me on the order of these animals), which explains that horses used to be native to North America, but went extinct 10,000 years ago, and were only reintroduced to the plains in 1500. Fascinating stuff, but I didn't find all the explanation on horse hunting and how horses were turned into pet food as compelling. Still, important to know.
The coyote chapter was less about their biology and more about their place in human culture. It widened its scope to talk about how some species were demonized despite their important place in Indian culture. That was interesting, and it was nice to hear that the coyote population expanded in response to a suite of human poisoning attempts. The grizzly bears, on the other hand, did not survive as well as their canine counterparts. I didn't know that they were this endangered, or that one could draw such a strong link between grizzlies and the idea of individuality within species of animals, more engaging food for thought while neglecting the biology that I really wanted to learn about.
Finally, we learned about the wolves. Their story is sad and rounds out the book without as much distinction as the other chapters. The final chapter is an overview of everything we've learned and the Great Plains Institute or whatever the non-profit seeking to create a Great Plains wildlife refuge is called. The book does end with an appreciated dash of hope.
I did really enjoy the pure writing of this book; it's got a smooth touch gracing its prose that many of these university-press books (two of which I have read this year, one about the history of bird painters) lack. It doesn't function as a great book about animals, but it is a good book about history. I'll give it a 7/10; I would've liked to hear more about the beauties or animals versus the horrors of humanity, but Flores had to write the book that he wanted to, and it worked out for him. I may buy his new book, Wild New World, which focuses on some of that fantastic stuff from the introduction. I also should pick up that new Rise and Reign of Mammals book making the rounds. American Serengeti may be more inspirational than enjoyable, but it's still a worthwhile read if you stumble across it out in the wild.
I have a complicated emotional relationship with the Great Plains. I spent my sixth through ninth grade years in Lawton, Oklahoma right in the heart of the Southern Great Plains. Those aren't particularly happy years for anyone. I've tied a lot of those feelings to the place, and walked away from them when I moved to Germany as a sophomore. It's not pancake flat, but flat enough to be a bit depressing. Very few trees. Mostly just fields and fields of farmland. I earned my Eagle Scout award in those four years, so I spent a great deal of time out doors camping and hiking and back packing. And it was there that I developed the habit of walking and reading outside. This is just to say that I didn't hate the landscape and hid from it - I didn't like it but still spent lots of time walking it and getting to know it. Anyway, the book: He jumps back and forth from the Pleistocene to the present, with long pauses in the 19th century. The various chapters focus on the current large mammals of the plains- the pronghorn, the coyote, wild horses, grizzly bears, bison (American Buffalo), and wolves. Did you know that canines and horses both evolved in North America and spread out from here? The horses had to be reintroduced after going extinct locally - but the canines always had a local presence. Grizzlies we know think of as mountain bears, but that's where they live now that we pushed them out of the plains. It's a captivating look at a piece of America now derisively ignored as "fly over country." He ties in the evolution of the climate over the past ten thousand years, the big die off of the mega-fauna at the end of the Pleistocene, the awe and wonder of the first westerners to visit these lands, and the bloody 19th century that saw most of the remaining large mammals hunted to near extinction. There are hopeful notes in the repopulating of these animals over the past few years and decades, and dreams of a return to the native grasses in large parks not yet built to really revive the prairie as it once was. The chapter on coyotes was particularly compelling - and I see that he has another book that looks exclusively at them. I will definitely be picking that one up. Strangely, I did come to appreciate this stark landscape the summer following my freshman year, after going to Philmont, the high adventure scouting camp in the southern Rockies in New Mexico. There they had trees and mountains in abundance. I had missed trees. I had missed mountains. The landscape was beautiful in a very conventional way- and it made me reflect back on the Southern Great Plains, and what its landscape had to offer.
This little book is a treasure for anyone who wants to understand a great environmental tragedy that helped shape American history--the destruction of the bison and other animals that once roamed the Great Plains.
Dan Flores gives the big picture, then breaks it down with essays about six important species: pronghorns, coyotes, wild horses, grizzles, bison and wolves. He paints some fascinating pictures--Europeans coming to the plains on elaborate safaris--and raises provocative questions about morality and human behavior.
He also disputes some popular beliefs, notably that the U.S. government had a deliberate policy of killing bison to starve the Indians onto reservations. This, he says, originated with a memoir by buffalo hunter John Cook, in which he attributed comments to Gen. Philip Sheridan, supposedly made in opposition to a Texas legislative effort to protect bison. Flores says this was a fabrication--there is no evidence Sheridan ever made such a speech or that the Texas legislature at the time ever considered regulating the bison hunt. He says Cook made up the story, which is now widely quoted, to make bison hunters appear heroic. Flores says the near-extinction of the bison, from numbers of around 25- to 30-million, was primarily due to climate change (extended drought), market demand for buffalo robes, which had both Europeans and Indians slaughtering the great beasts, and destruction of grasslands by an influx of other grazing animals--wild horses, mules and oxen pulling the wagon trains and the cattle of settlers.
The most resilient animal of this bunch was the coyote. Because of it was slaughtered and persecuted in the west, it expanded its range and is not found all over the country, including urban areas.
Flores also offers some hope with discussion of efforts to restore wild areas of the Great Plains and bring back animals that once populated them.
American Serengeti is a mixture of big history, environmental history and personal memoir that looks at the American Great Plains from a new and fascinating perspective. The book is beautifully written, and is alternately inspiring and infuriating.
Dan Flores looks as far back to the Pleistocene extinctions in his effort to track the "megafauna" of the Plains, but concentrates his effort on the six primary species that dominated the Plains in the years leading up to European arrival: pronghorns, coyotes, horses, grizzlies, bison and wolves. For each of these animals he tracks their evolution, looks at how they adapted to life on the plains, and examines the circumstances of their near extermination during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Flores pins the fact that the plains are now considered an uninteresting "flyover country" squarely on the fact that the last two centuries have seen a catastrophic loss of indigenous animals and plants in the region. The nearly complete transformation from a wild and beautiful safari comparable to the African Serengeti into a "slate wiped almost clean" was the result of uncontrolled hunting, determined homesteading and other human decisions.
American Serengeti looks at plains history as going through three phases. The first was the initial "thrill" that European and American naturalists and explorers experienced, the second involved centuries of wreaking havok upon the region, and the third is the emerging re-wilding of the area that Flores hopes is beginning to occur in recent years. As he discusses this current phase Flores is obviously frustrated by the state of the plains, but is ultimately hopeful that with proper planning and dedication large portions of the region can again be home to large populations of the "charismatic megafauna" of the plains.