When we travel the US, we think of the wildlife that we will encounter there. Want to see grizzly bears? Go north. Want to see Javelina, go to Arizona. The rocky mountains contain elk and bighorn sheep, while deer are everywhere. But what would you see if you were to visit the US when Columbus did? What would you encounter, and where would you encounter them?
First, you would not see the ubiquitous city bird, the rock pigeon, they are not native to the US, having arrived in the early 1600’s as an easy protein source aboard ships. . Instead you would see enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that numbered in the billions in the forests east of the rocky mountains. Passenger pigeons were once considered the most numerous species of bird in the world, but were driven into extinction by over-hunting and deforestation. The last pigeon, named Martha, died in 1914 in the Cincinnati zoo.
There would have been no feral horses roaming Nevada, or cattle of any kind. Instead, bison would have roamed in the millions across the entire grassland east of the rockies. Elk were distributed throughout the entire US. They numbered around 10 million animals divided into six subspecies, two of which are now extinct. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has been reintroducing elk across the US in an effort to gain back some of this magnificent animal’s previous range.
There would be no honey bees. Honey bees were introduced by Europeans. There are 4000 species of bees living in North America. Honey bees are extremely proficient at pollinating imported european trees, but are not good at pollinating tomatoes, blueberries and other native plants. Those plants are still pollinated by local native bees.
Coyotes have benefitted from extermination of the wolf by expanding their range from a small section of the Southwestern deserts and plains to the entire country. Their population has grown significantly since the arrival of Europeans and cities across the West. The lonely howl of the coyote, once the stuff of cowboys and campfires can now be heard in downtown cities across the east coast.
Animal populations are not stable even in the absence of human intervention. Animal populations change over time as demonstrated by the javelina. This tapir-like animal that lives in southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas has been migrating north from it’s ancestral habitat in South America. It is so recent in Arizona that its remains do not appear in archaeological sites and only scant mention is made of it in the historical record.
Another South American Animal that is expanding its historic range is the Nine-banded armadillo. This bizarre creature, associated most often as Texas roadkill, have been expanding their range. Within the past 100 years, these animals have crossed our southern border and have been moving north and east since. Found now as far north as Missouri, this hardy animal is making North America its home.
Reintroduction and changing mores have allowed previously persecuted animals to reclaim lands where they were previously hunted to extinction. From small animals, such as prairie dogs, exterminated from parts of the West and now reintroduced, to mountain lions expanding their range out of the rockies to reclaim lands they were previously eliminated from; our wildlife is constantly on the move.
Wildlife ranges are not fixed. Some animals have been benefitted by the invasion of Europeans to North America, while others have been lost forever. It’s not all bad news: coyotes and mountain lions have shown that wily predators can claim territory in the face of persecution. Organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are placing habitat at the top of the pyramid, showing how important wild places are to our inherited land. Once people living in Wisconsin heard the bugle of elk in the fall, and with the efforts of us all to preserve habitats, defend wild places and open the doors to wildlife previously shut out of our vision of America, they will hear them again.