Curious Blurbs

Animals, at the Moment

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:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/35740357@N03/4167385780/

See the following sources for more info:

https://defenders.org/black-footed-ferret/basic-facts

https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/animals-of-the-northern-great-plains

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/directory

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.ag.076

http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.ag.026

Historical Happenings

Rain Follows the Plow

The number of humans on Earth has septupled in the last 130 years, and the population continues to increase exponentially. It won’t be long before there are more people than the planet can handle. Back in the mid-1800s, however, this wasn’t so much of an issue. The number of people in the New World was increasing but there was space for them to spread out and explore. The government, railroad tycoons, and mass real estate influencers were more than happy to encourage as many people as possible to move out West into the Great American Desert.

“Spokesmen for the American West read an inspiriting message in the world of Nature. Their imaginations were filled with symbols of fertility, of waxing vigor, of abundant harvests, of endlessly increasing wealth and happiness.” –Henry Nash Smith

The allegedly marvelous opportunity for agriculture was a treat used to entice settlers. Despite surveys returning results of arid or even desert conditions in the Plains region, infinite wealth and happiness could be found if only one was determined to succeed. The biggest issue, according to some, was the lack of rainfall. The solution was found in a claim that ‘rain follows the plow’. By plowing and cultivating the dry expanses of the Great Plains, more water would evaporate and in turn, more water would be available to precipitate back down as rain.

There were a few big names in this game. Ferdinand V. Hayden was an instrumental surveyor of the region up until the founding of the U.S. Geological survey who believed that planting trees could bring more rain. Richard Smith Elliot assisted Hayden for a few years, included cereal grains in his list of crops that could thrive on the plains and suggested that building railroads could also contribute to rainfall. Samuel Aughey and Charles Dana Wilber wrote pages upon pages about how rainfall was already increasing and the land to the west was characterized by unmatched fertility.

On the other hand, John Wesley Powell argued that this was all bologna. There may have been some cyclical changes going on, but there was no big increase in rainfall and any increase had nothing to do with human activity. Powell had the right idea, but the power of those in favor of rain follows the plow did a number on his reputation. But until dry-farming techniques could be perfected, the rise of civilization in the wild west would eventually lead the way into the Dust Bowl.

Featured photo courtesy of U.S. National Archive:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/35740357@N03/7495746734/

See the following sources for more info:

Smith, Henry. “Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains, 1844-1880.” Huntington Library Quarterly 10, no. 1 (1946): 169.