We’ve heard about Precambrian life, the coral reefs of the Cretaceous Interior Seaway, and the mammoth and his friends of the Miocene. What lives on the Great Plains today? Agriculture and the development that comes with human settlement has played a large role in the ecology of the plains. Introduction of new species and the hunting and destruction of native species has left a stain in American history.
Settlers brought many work animals to pull wagons and farm equipment in an attempt to tame the Wild West. Oxen were cheap, hardy, and tasty, and so a popular choice for families traveling across the plains. After using up the oxen, people turned to horses and mules. Horses were more popular than mules, and even though farming technology has increased significantly, are still an integral facet of the modern-day ranch. The University of Nebraska says that not many species are endemic or found only in the Great Plains. Most of them are birds and small mammals, like white-tailed jackrabbits, Franklin’s ground squirrel, and the swift fox.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are plenty of animals that used to thrive in the region, and now are suffering. The most well-known example is probably the bison, cherished by the Native Americans and almost hunted out of existence by European settlers. Tens of millions of plains bison used to roam the Great American Desert, but westward expansion in the 1880s took its toll. Today, the plains bison maintains a ‘near threatened’ spot on the endangered species list. The mountain plover, a cute little chubby bird that likes to nest in prairie dog towns, is another near threatened species on the list. The Great Plains is the only place the plovers call home. Only about 300 black-footed ferrets—another species that is unique to the Great Plains—still live in the wild, they are truly endangered. Believe it or not, this is a lot better than in the past. Researchers believed that black-footed ferrets were completely extinct in the wild in 1986, with only 18 left in captivity. Populations of ungulates (hoofed mammals), like pronghorn, deer, elk and bighorn sheep, predators like bears and wolves, and smaller animals like prairie dogs, turkeys, chickens and grouse have also declined.
It’s not all bad news. Due to conservation efforts, some populations are increasing. The black-footed ferrets, McCown’s longspur and ferruginous hawks have all seen an increase in numbers in the last few decades.
Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archive:
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