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Recently, my boys and I watched Lewis & Clark: the Journey of the Corps of Discovery, a great documentary film by Ken Burns—and I was struck by the fact that their adventure didn’t occur all that long ago in the whole scheme of things. They set out in 1804, just a bit more than 200 years ago, a handful of generations, yet they experienced a world that has all but disappeared.
After leaving Camp Dubois, Illinois, the Corps of Discovery traveled through more than 4,000 miles of wilderness to reach the Pacific coast—a journey that took them a year and a half. And they encountered things we can only imagine today: endless herds of buffalo, flocks of birds so large they darkened the sky, rivers that ran untamed for thousands of miles, thriving societies of native people that had called this vast landscape home for millennia…
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Growing up in Colorado, on the western edge of the Great Plains, I often tried to image what my home must have looked like to the Ute Indians, herds of wild animals covering the sea of grassland that stretched endlessly from the foot of Pikes Peak. But less than 200 years earlier, Meriwether Lewis didn’t have to imagine. He witnessed the herds. On April 22, 1805, he wrote, “"I ascended to the top of the cut bluff this morning, for whence I had the most delightful view of the country, the whole of which except the valley formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immense herds of buffalo, elk, deer, and antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture."
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When Lewis and Clark crossed the Great Plains, they experienced one of the world’s largest wild grasslands, rivaling Africa’s Serengeti. The prairie spread from Indiana to the Rocky Mountains, from southern Canada to northern Mexico. It accounted for more land than any other ecosystem in North America.
Two hundred years ago, as many as 70 million bison, 40 million pronghorn antelope and 5 billion prairie dogs lived on those wild plains. The prairie dog villages created habitat for scores of other creatures, like the black-footed ferret, ferruginous hawk, and swift fox. As many as 100,000 grizzly bears lived throughout the West. The sheer numbers of wild animals alive in North America at the time is almost unfathomable. Even for someone like me, a biologist with an overactive imagination, it’s almost impossible to picture such masses of wildlife. It must have been wondrous!
Equally unfathomable, is how quickly the animals disappeared.
By 1883, less than 80 years after Lewis and Clark completed their journey, the boundless herds of buffalo had been reduced to a few hundred individuals! Buffalo were nearly extinct. In fact, we owe the survival of the species to the creation of Yellowstone National Park, where some of the remaining animals took refuge and made a comeback. Today, there are approximately 200,000 buffalo in the United States, but only a small fraction of them are wild.
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Similarly, hunting pressure and habitat fragmentation decimated pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep by the turn of the 20th century. In his journals, William Clark described great numbers of Audubon bighorn sheep along the upper Missouri River. That subspecies is now extinct, and all remaining bighorn sheep have been reduced to small populations in scattered mountain habitats. Barely 1,000 grizzlies remain in the lower 48 states, all of them reduced to small pockets of wilderness in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Prairie dogs are still being poisoned and shot as varmints, even though the villages they create are crucial to the survival of raptors, badgers, swift foxes and black-footed ferrets. Even the endless grasslands themselves have been reduced by more than 90 percent, the vast majority of the Great Plains now cultivated, the remnants of native prairie found only in scattered islands of habitat.
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The rivers have changed too. Lewis and Clark explored thousands of miles of truly wild rivers, undammed stretches of free-flowing water that flooded seasonally, enriching soils, feeding wetlands, and providing habitat for countless animals. When they reached the Columbia and Snake Rivers, west of the Rocky Mountains, the Corps of Discovery was astounded by the number of fish they observed. William Clark estimated that 10,000 pounds of dried fish was stored by the native people they met. In fact, for thousands of years the fish had sustainably supported large populations of native people in the Pacific Northwest, and they provided a nutrient foundation for the entire Northwest ecosystem.
Not that long ago, 16 million salmon returned to the Columbia River system to spawn each year. That number has now been reduced by 99 percent! Even as late as 1896, the total catch of chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and steelhead was 3.3 million. By 1990, it had been reduced to 257,000. Some runs of coho, chinook and sockeye are already extinct. Twenty-one runs of fish in the system are threatened and 5 are endangered.
Dams now block the rivers. Irrigation draws water away. Industrial logging muddies streams with sediment, while runoff from agriculture, mines, and cities pollutes the water. The upstream homecoming for adult salmon and the downstream journey for smolts are now fraught with peril. Overharvesting by commercial fishing operations and diseases from fish farms provide further threats.
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Even the mighty Missouri that Lewis and Clark struggled up for more than a year has been converted to shipping channels and submerged beneath reservoirs. Two thousand miles of levees edge the river, which is now only a third as wide and 127 miles shorter then it was in 1804. It has been channeled and dammed, robbed of its ability to dissipate flood waters, deposit silt, nourish the soil, and support fish and wildlife.
And the people Lewis and Clark encountered, the more than 50 Native American tribes they came in contact with… We all know how that devastating story played out. By the late 1800s, almost all of their ancestral homeland had been taken, countless individuals had been killed, and the survivors were confined to reservations. Each time Lewis and Clark met a new group of native people, they gave them a peace medal, which showed Jefferson on one side and two hands clasping on the other. Sadly, this was just the first in a long string of promises to be broken.
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That’s a LOT of change in a relatively short time. That’s a lot for all of us—for the world—to lose.
But there are many people making great efforts to bring back elements of our ecological heritage, to restore the types of habitats and wild creatures that Lewis and Clark encountered. And you can get involved too. Groups like American Rivers are working to restore and protect rivers and other water systems. The Nature Conservancy and other organizations are working hard to protect the world’s remaining wild places and the animals that depend on them. You can even make a difference in your own backyard with small actions like those promoted by the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program.
The incredible 8,000 mile journey of Lewis and Clark was completed by stringing together millions of small steps. Every step, even things that seem too small to matter, add up and make a difference. So take a step. Get mud on your feet.
J. S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.