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Should Conservation Look Back? Examining Historic Wildlife Populations of America’s Serengeti

  “Immense” was the word Meriwether Lewis used repeatedly to describe the abundance of wildlife on the prairie during his transcontinental expedition with William Clark from 1804 to 1806; “We saw immence quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up the river: consisting of herds of Buffaloe, Elk and antelopes with...

Photo: Larb Hills of northeastern Montana by Dennis Lingohr


“Immense” was the word Meriwether Lewis used repeatedly to describe the abundance of wildlife on the prairie during his transcontinental expedition with William Clark from 1804 to 1806; “We saw immence quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up the river: consisting of herds of Buffaloe, Elk and antelopes with some deer and wolves” (April 17th, 1805). The expedition, termed the Corps of Discovery, was a pet project of President Thomas Jefferson, who wished to learn more about the geography, people and wildlife of his recent 828,000 square mile shopping spree known as the Louisiana Purchase.

Today, the plains are barely recognizable from the descriptions provided by the journals of Lewis and Clark. During the 1800s a series of localized extinctions occurred across the American prairie, instigated in large part by the arrival of fur trappers (who heard about the abundance of animals encountered by the expedition) and increasing numbers of settlers (thanks to steamboats, wagon trains and railroads). An estimated 30 million bison were reduced to a few hundred, pronghorn numbered in the low thousands, and elk, along with predators like grizzlies and wolves, completely disappeared.

Distribution of Wild Bison in 1800. Source: American Prairie Reserve
Distribution of Wild Bison in 1893. Source: American Prairie Reserve


Since 2001, American Prairie Reserve (APR) has been working to restore the prairie ecosystem in northeastern Montana. As an intern with APR, I have been tasked with examining historical works of literature and other primary sources to establish wildlife population estimates in the Reserve region. I am focusing my research on the time period between the late 1700s and 1840, simply because this is the time period, before severe modification by Europeans and Americans, for which the most amount of information exists. Therefore, my research findings will provide a reference to what this ecosystem could have supported historically, but it in no way represents a pristine image of the environment.

For any wildlife restoration project, it is necessary to understand what species abundance and distribution looked like historically. This provides us with information about how the ecological community once interacted and establishes a baseline for what the ecosystem could support. The task is surprisingly difficult for the mixed-grass prairie in northeastern Montana: many of the species disappeared in the span of two or three decades, and records of their populations prior to the extirpation are very limited.

“Antelope Shooting,” c. 1845 by George Catlin. From the collection, “North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of America." Explorers and artists provide a glimpse into this time period through their journals and paintings.


There are, however, several possible approaches to this research question. Scientists have provided their own answers using ecological models that estimate carrying capacities with forage survey data. Historians have taken an alternate approach using old documents, journals, and evidence from the archaeological and anthropological record to construct a portrait of what this ecosystem once looked like. Many historians have conducted research in this manner on the Yellowstone area, but to my knowledge, nobody has until now endeavored to do an analysis of the historical wildlife in our area of interest, the American Serengeti.

While indisputably important, this research is also inherently limited. First person accounts are biased in nature, and archaeological record is a mere trace of all that was once there. But though this world of historical ecology is filled with bias and uncertainty, it is possible to extract some granules of truth. The foreword to My Life as an Indian, the memoir of an American fur trapper who lived with the Piegan Blackfeet, describes the document as “a true history and not romance, yet abounds in romantic incident,” noting that “in its absolute truthfulness lies its value.”

In addition, ecosystems are perpetually in a state of flux and evolution, and thus may never be accurately quantified. No matter how rigorous my research, I can only arrive at an estimate of how numerous different wildlife species were at one particular time in history, under the influence of numerous environmental and human pressures.

Pronghorn doe and twin fawns on American Prairie Reserve. Photo: Diane Hargreaves


As American Prairie Reserve grows, our hope is that the public will be able to experience a landscape that is part of our natural heritage with the understanding that it will continue to evolve over time, linked with our own behaviors. I look forward to sharing my discoveries, challenges and insights with you over the next several posts and would equally enjoy hearing about similar undertakings from around the world.

Michelle Berry is a Master’s student in environmental studies at Stanford University and is excited to intern with American Prairie Reserve this summer. Her 10-week internship was made possible by the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

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Meet the Author

Sean Gerrity
American Prairie Reserve (APR) is assembling a world class wildlife park in northern Montana, with the goal of one day creating a seamless 3.5 million acre grassland ecosystem. Learn more about APR, including our bison restoration efforts and how to visit, on the Reserve's website.