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Great Plains Wildlife

Great Plains Wildlife

by William H. Benson

August 25, 2016

     Vacation this summer took me to southeast Alaska, where I met the zoologist Brent Nixon. Each of his high-energy hour-long lectures on Alaska’s wildlife packed the theater and thrilled his audiences. Those who attended learned a host of details on the Great Humpback whales, the North American black and brown bears, seals, sea lions, Orca or the killer whales, and coastal bald eagles.

     His lectures prompted me to think about our wildlife here on the Great Plains, in the center of North America, how it pales in comparison to Alaska’s, and how it has changed.

     As little as two hundred years ago, enormous herds of the American Bison or buffalo roamed across the plains, and lesser numbers of elk and wolves. Then, late in the nineteenth century, large numbers of people came here to farm, raise livestock, and build homes and towns, and they converted the plains into a slaughterhouse. As a result, today on the plains, the few buffalo remaining are relegated to ranches, penned in by barbed wire, but the elk and the wolves have disappeared.

     Further back in time, into the last Ice Age, between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago, large mammals lived here on the Great Plains, including saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, mastodons, mammoths, and giant bears. Scholars are unsure what factors brought about their extinction, but they too have disappeared.

     What is left today? When we drive between towns, most likely we will see Pronghorn antelopes, deer, prairie dogs, coyotes, hawks, or eagles. If we get out of our car or pickup, we may catch sight of a fox, a cottontail rabbit, a jack rabbit, a pheasant, a badger, a raccoon, or a snake.

     Through licenses and designated seasons, state and federal officials limit the hunting and fishing of certain species, but for others, especially coyotes, prairie dogs, and rattle snakes, it is open season, meaning no limits and by any means.

     Dan Flores, a historian, who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, published this year a book he entitled, Coyote America. In it, he calls the effort to eradicate the coyote [aka prairie wolf] “the most epic campaign of persecution against any animal in North American history.” He writes, that they are “victims of a crusade that surpassed any other in terms of the range of killing techniques and cruelty.”

     In 1931, Congress approved a spending bill that appropriated $10 million for the purchase of strychnine, and blanket poisoning killed off millions. Flores says that “between 1947 and 1956, approximately 6.5 million coyotes were exterminated in the American West.” And the killing has not stopped. He estimates that “500,000 are killed every year.”

     And yet, despite the strychnine, the steel traps, and the guns, the coyote has flourished. Unlike the buffalo, the elk, and the wolf, the coyote has increased its numbers and its range. For eons, coyotes were creatures who inhabited the plains and deserts, but in recent decades they have crossed the Mississippi River and taken up residence in the midwestern states, along the Atlantic seaboard, and even in cities. They arrived in Denver in the 1970s, and in New York City’s Central Park in 1999.

     Coyotes now live all across North America. Flores writes, “by the late 1970s, they had colonized all of North America—they even swam cold Atlantic waters to Cape Cod. Unless they stowaway to Hawaii, they colonized their final U. S. state, Delaware, in 2010.”

    How did the coyote survive a scorched-earth campaign? Flores points to their “reliance on problem-solving intelligence for success,” their excellent sense of smell and sight, their nocturnal behavior, their ability to deliver large litters of pups, and their willingness to seek new territory and to eat anything.

     Flores also underscored the coyotes’ social adaptive skill-set, which he labeled “fusion-fission.” Like wolves, coyotes will join together into packs, but unlike wolves, the coyote will separate from the pack and live alone. The “lone wolf” does not exist, but the “lone coyote” does.

     Coyotes will eat prairie dogs, a good thing. Although prairie dogs belong to the squirrel family, they choose to burrow into the ground and build tunnels. It is the excess dirt that they kick out of the tunnel at the surface that causes a pasture’s immense damage. Ranchers stare in disgust at the destroyed grass, and the devastated pasture. Hunters shoot them, ranchers poison them, but the prairie dogs still flourish.

     It has been said that “the female prairie dog is born pregnant.” That is not quite true. A full year passes before they reach sexual maturity, and they produce only a single litter each year.  

     For decades people have labelled the prairie dogs and the prairie wolves the Great Plains’s worst predators. One has to admire their tenacity to live and thrive despite an oppressive, determined, and intelligent enemy who hates them just for existing, for what they are.

     Flores predicted, “When the world ends, only cockroaches, rats, and coyotes will remain.” To that short list I would add five more: ants, bacteria, flies, mosquitoes, and prairie dogs.