Human Journey

Top Predator on the Plains: Wolf, Bear or Human?

Looking back in time, who was the top predator of the American prairie ecosystem? Wolves, grizzly bears… humans? As I continue my research of historic wildlife populations in northeastern Montana (read my first post here), it is important to consider how changes in human populations were affecting the ecology of this area. There was a tendency among European and American explorers to romanticize the landscapes they encountered as pristine paradises flourishing with wild animals and vegetation. In fact, this land had been inhabited by hundreds of thousands of humans that had shaped the ecosystem in variable ways.

Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Plains hunted a variety of game animals, but buffalo was certainly the fundamental source of food, clothing, tools and shelter. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans hunted buffalo in Montana as early as 11000 B.C., but it was during the middle prehistoric (4000 to 500 B.C.) that cultures made wide use of buffalo jumps – cliffs over which humans could drive a whole herd of buffalo for slaughter. Archaeologists estimate that humans killed up to 200,000 bison a year in Montana using this method, whereas wolves only killed 25,000.

View from a buffalo jump as it exists today on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, just south of American Prairie Reserve in Montana. Photo by David Driscoll.


Attempting to measure how significantly Native Americans restricted wildlife ranges and constrained population sizes is controversial. Some researchers theorize that aboriginals had a tremendous impact on wildlife and that it is a mistake to view Native American cultures as “conservationist.” (Alvard 1993, Kay 1994). An entry from William Clark’s journal has been used to support this hypothesis. On August 29th 1806, near Chamberlain, South Dakota, Clark comes across a herd of buffalo that he claims must number 20,000 and writes, “I have observed that in the country between the nations which are at war with each other the greatest number of wild animals are to be found.” This observation has prompted academics to consider whether large populations of wildlife were funneled into “buffer zones” between warring tribes where they were safe from human threat (Martin and Szuter 1999, Laliberte and Ripple 2001).

Other experts think that this theory is overstated or completely wrong. These scientists and historians point to huge climatic changes and biogeographic differences that could have accounted for the wildlife distributions observed by Lewis and Clark (Yochim 2001, Lyman and Wolverton 2002). Most notably, from 1500 to 1850, advancing glaciers created something known as the Little Ice Age on the Northern Great Plains. Species like pronghorn, elk, and deer would have been particularly affected by colder temperatures and increased snow depth.

“Hunting of the Grizzly Bear” by Karl Bodmer, 1842. Source: National Museum of Wildlife Art.


I sat down recently with Yellowstone historian Paul Schullery to discuss grizzly bear populations in Montana. Instead, we spent much of our time discussing changes in the prairie landscape over time. “Nothing is stable,” Schullery said. “Things change all the time, and they had already changed because of the horse . . . [Lewis and Clark] were not seeing an unaffected situation.”

Horses allowed man the element of mobility and precision that had never existed previously. Northern Plains tribes like the Blackfoot, Crow, Mandan, and Hidatsa had access to the horse starting in the mid 1700’s. When Lewis and Clark arrived, these tribes were going through a massive cultural shift, and the effect of that transition had not been fully realized.

“Assiniboine hunting buffalo,” painting by Paul Kane circa 1851-1856. Source: Learn NC.


While the horse made the Plains Indians much more effective hunters, small pox was simultaneously devastating their populations. European explorers brought to America a slew of Old World diseases for which Native Americans were immunologically unprepared. Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan in western North Dakota, where an estimated 90% of the population had been wiped out in the preceding half century. This extreme effect on a top predator would certainly have influenced the population dynamics of other species in the ecosystem.

Dynamics within human populations such as disease, tribal warfare, and integration of the horse help to both muddle and clarify the historic range and abundance of wildlife. I’m interested to hear your thoughts and comments on this topic as I try to make sense of these issues myself.


American Prairie Reserve intern Michelle Berry is a Master’s student in environmental studies at Stanford. She has been tasked with examining historical works of literature and other primary sources to establish wildlife population estimates in the Reserve region of northeastern Montana. Her 10-week internship was made possible by the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Note: Feature image is “White Wolves Attacking a Buffalo Bull” by George Catlin, 1841. Source

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.
  • Mad Dog Mike

    You should see the carnage for the re-introduction of the Canadian Wolf…they kill, don’t eat it, leave it for the bears..and now we have more bears than ever before…our MT FWP estimates 1000 grizzlies in NW Region1 alone, centered in Kalispell…at least with the game laws, we conserve these game animals as hunters as Aldo Leopold espoused…for all ,,,,,,even the tree huggers to see.

  • Sam Dedon

    Mad Dog Mike, What you report is only what you likeminded cohort believe – but that doesn’t make it real. Wolves weren’t reintroduced tho NW MT (they were reintroduced to Yellowstone and Central Idaho). Wolves in NW MT came back on their own from Canada (so Canadians? – I guess). The entire wrong wolf/Canadian Wolf thing is dumb. Wolves are long range dispersers (hundreds of miles, and mate). It’s all the same wolf – and there is no actual data supporting your submission. Yes they kill (news flash). So do lions, black bears, grizzly bears, coyotes, humans, bobcats, cars, trains, etc. (what’s your point). Wolves don’t typically leave it for other critters or at all. Not saying it doesn’t happen. But anyone that spends enough time in the woods that has seen a lot of wolf kills know that typically they are completely (or nearly so) consumed. People that talk like you do continue to repeat junk from the anti wolf play book – with no actual data, and certainly none of your own. Your world only lives in your head.

  • Ray Matlack

    Your notion of wildlife seeking refuge in areas where waring tribes come in to contact reminds me of the many ecological studies on wolves and deer, coyotes and wolves, and coyotes and smaller canids. In many studies, animals have been found to make more use of the areas of overlap of their predators due to reduced use of these areas by the predators. Ecological data support your notion. Interesting article.

  • William Lynn

    Great article! Thank you. American Prairie Reserve sounds like a great project. I too am particularly fascinated by the notion of overlapping tribal boundary zones as wildlife refugia. It makes me think of the DMZ between North and South Korea, an ironic refugia for wildlife on the Korean peninsula.

    If I may, please allow me to gently say something about the pristine myth you reference in your first paragraph. I hope it helps situate your research in a larger debate you may not be aware of.

    The myth of the pristine — wherein Euro-Americans assumed a fecund landscape devoid of humans — is something of a myth itself, a straw-man argument invented by scholars with anti-environmentalist sympathies. The views of explorers, painters, entrepreneurs and politicians of that time were often more complex. For example, the degradation and domestication of European and eastern North American landscapes were the interpretive and comparative context for their remarks about “unexplored” North America. Moreover, the landscape was rarely thought to be devoid of humans, only of Europeans and their way of life. Objectionalble as it may be, this is what made the lands of the First Nations ripe for the taking. The American-Indian wars are but one example of this.

    In conservation circles, the pristine myth is used to create a moral and political equivalence between the resource management of early humans and modern societies, and thereby excuse contemporary wildlife exploitation and habitat degradation. Afterall, ‘humans have always managed their landscapes’. The pristine myth runs in a pack with other ideas such as the social construction of nature –there is no nature, only the nature we create –and anthropocentrism — humans are the moral centre of the universe, and nature is simply a set of resources for our use.

    As someone who has worked on the ethics of wolf recovery for over a decade, I have heard this line of argument again and again. So while I think research like yours is great, I want to gently encourage you to consider whether or not to frame it in terms of the pristine myth.

    Thanks again of the interesting articles.

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