From tens of millions to mere hundreds in a few decades: what kind of travesty is that? What kind of sickness has overtaken a people when they engage in that kind of behavior? This greed cannot be excused as human nature, since other people cohabitated with the creatures for millennia without acting the same way, and in fact expanded their range with their wildtending practices.
No, there is something special about Western Civilization, and I mean that in the worst way. The outbreak of brutality can be traced to the agricultural revolution, a dramatic shift that led directly to cultures based on hierarchical domination and to lifestyles dependent on widespread environmental degradation.
This new worldview took expression in the Biblical injunction in Genesis 1:28, to "subdue" the earth and to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth." Other translations replace "have dominion over" with "rule," "reign over," "be masters over" or "in charge of" and these are all synonyms so the top-down character of this relationship is not in dispute. Contemporary adherents to the Abrahamic religions who wish to recast their faith as environmentally responsible must reckon with this concept, which is at the heart of their traditions, and without which the moral of the story is very different.
Believe it or not, the Yellowstone Buffalo herd is still threatened. Though it grew throughout the 20th Century, and in the past decade its numbers have floated around four to five thousand, its individuals are not protected from being slaughtered. If they go outside the Park boundaries, which they tend to do every winter in search of food and calving grounds, they are at the mercy of the "Interagency Bison Management Plan," under which the Montana Department of Livestock and National Park Service harass, capture and kill Buffalo. Over 11,500 have been murdered under this program since 1985. The stated pretext is that Buffalo will endanger cattle by infecting them with brucellosis, but there has never been a single documented case of that happening. No matter what spurious excuse is put forward, the true motivation for the annual killing is much deeper and darker, and it is this: Western civilization is just that profoundly sick that it can't leave this last wild remnant in peace. It must torture it; it's in the cultural DNA. Witness this account, as posted by the Buffalo Field Campaign, an activist organization that defends the Yellowstone herd:
On March 7, 1997, during a winter when 1,084 buffalo were killed, American Indian tribal leaders from around the country gathered near Gardiner, Montana, to hold a day of prayer for the buffalo. The ceremony was disrupted by the echo of gunshots. Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder left the prayer circle to investigate the shots. Less than two miles away, Department of Livestock agents had killed fourteen buffalo. Walking across a field to pray over the bodies, she was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. To Little Thunder and other tribal members present there was no question of coincidence: "They shot the buffalo because we were at that place on that day at that time," she said.
As the Buffalo were being decimated, the entire floristic web of the Tallgrass Prairie was being plowed under. Unfortunately for the prairie community, the soils it produces are ideal for agriculture. Explains Johnsgard:
The soils of Tallgrass prairie are among the deepest and most productive for grain crops of any on earth. They represent the breakdown products of thousands of generations of annual productivity of grass and other herbaceous organic matter. Because of these organic materials and the clays usually present in prairie soils, such soils have excellent water-holding capabilities. In addition to the humus and related organic matter thus produced, many prairie legumes have nitrogen-fixing root bacteria that enrich and fertilize the soil to a depth of at least 15 feet. Earthworms and various vertebrate animals such as gophers make subterranean burrows that mix and aerate prairie soils, in the case of earthworms to a depth of 13 feet or more.
So for all the species of plants and animals of the Tallgrass Prairiewho number in the thousands if you count the insectsthe end was nigh as soon as the Europeans arrived en masse, which didn't happen until after 1850. Less than a century later, most of this unique ecology was gone. In the present day, the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem is even more rare than old growth forest, with less than 4% of it remaining. Most of that is in the western part of its former range, in Kansas and Oklahoma. In the eastern parts, such as Illinois, less than 1% is left. Like the slaughter of the Buffalo, a loss on this scale is unimaginable.
Agriculture replaces the wild with the domestic and in the Tallgrass Prairie, it did so rapidly, with deranged ruthlessness.
* * *
It was with all of this in the back of my mindthe Buffalo, the Native Americans, the untilled grasslandsthat I visited Nine Mile Prairie outside of Lincoln, Nebraska on September 10, 2018. I was astounded, and in some way it was the highlight of the entire cross-country trip I took that summer.
The preserve is owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is located five miles west and four miles north of its downtown campus; hence the name. It is only 230 acres in size, which is barely more than a third of a square mile, but even so it is one of the biggest parcels of "virgin" Tallgrass Prairie in the whole state.
Nine Mile Preserve is not set up as a tourist destination. The parking area only accommodates a handful of vehicles, the entrance is not well marked, and the only signage is well inside. This is all for the best, as the preserve's primary function is for research, and the fewer disturbances the better.
The first flower that greeted me inside the fence was the poorly named Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata). Yes, it was undoubtedly a mallow, and certainly poppy-shaped, but "purple" was not right at all; it was much closer to "magenta," "fuchsia" or possibly "cerise" (according to crowd-sourced suggestions I solicited on social media). Regardless of shade, the blossom itself was striking: five rounded petals formed a cup, white at the center, was a dense cluster of light yellow anthers shedding pollen enthusiastically. The foliage was also distinctive: lobed like the familiar Maple, but with deeper indentations and sharper points. The shape could have been the print of some strange web-footed creature. According to Jon Farrarwhose Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains I drew on for many of the IDs and much of the ethnobotany that follows hereinthe roots are both edible (raw or cooked) and medicinal. The Teton Dakota Native Americans "inhaled the smoke of burning, dried roots for head colds" and drank a tea of boiled roots "for assorted internal pains."
But what to call C. involucrata since "Purple Poppy Mallow" won't do? Other common names include Claret Cup (in reference to the flower's shape), Buffalo Poppy (a tribute to the prairie's former inhabitants), Low Poppy Mallow (which describes its growth habit) and Cowboy Rose (a salute to the region's conquerors). Personally I prefer one of the first two, and would reject the last one out of hand; my heroes were on the other team.
Purple flowers that were actually purple soon appeared as we went further into the refuge: New England Asters (Aster novae-angliae), with their classic, daisy-style flowers; two Gayfeathers: Rough (Liatris aspera)aka Button Snakeroot and Rattlesnake-Masterand Dotted (L. punctata)aka Blazing Star and Starwortwith their spike-like inflorescences; and Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea angustifolia), renowned for their medicinal properties, and unmistakably identifiable by their drooping pinkish-purple ray petals and bristly collection of red-tipped disc florets.