We often romanticize about the past. That may also apply to some of us when we think about the northern Great Plains before settlement. We may, for example, visualize verdant grasslands and azure skies and bison lazily grazing the abundant green forage. The implication of that “natural” scene is that there was little or no disturbance.
But that perception is a bit naïve. It is actually a lot naïve. Prairie fires would have occasionally turned large areas to blackened ash. Periodic droughts, grasshopper irruptions, and the large bison herds would also have periodically caused considerable disturbance.
And all those bison! I have seen estimates that the interior of North America may have supported between 40-60 million bison before European settlement. Depending upon how they were distributed, they may have caused some major disturbances. I was thinking of all that recently when I reread some portions of the “Journal of Alexander Henry the Younger 1799-1814, Volume I, which was edited by Barry Gough, and published by The Chaplain Society in 1988.
I would like to read a bit of his journal from 1800 where he makes some observations of disturbance by the bison. He made the observations somewhere near the confluence of the Scratching River with the Red River near Morris, Manitoba which would be around 25 miles north of the border.
“The ravages of the Buffalos at this place is certainly astonishing, to a parson not accustom’d to the meadows. The beach which was once a soft black mud, into which a man would have sunk knee deep, is now as hard as a pavement, occasioned by the numerous herds, coming down here to drink. The willows are intirely trampled and torn into atoms, even the bark of the smaller trees are in many places totally rub’d off by the Buffalo rubbing or scratching themselves against them. The Grass upon the first bank of the river is entirely worn away. The numerous paths (some of which are a foot deep in the hard turf) which comes out of the Plains to the bank of the River, and the vast quantity of dung which lays in every direction, gives this place the appearance of a civilized Country where Cattle have been kept for many years.”
The place looked like a cattle yard! No doubt Henry’s observations could have been accurate for other areas in the northern plains as well. So things weren’t always the pastoral picture we like to imagine. Disturbance happened, and we occasionally need to be reminded of that fact in the ecology of our natural pre-settlement grassland ecosystem.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.