Speaker describes the decline of our wildlife

Matt Kuhns

“Restoration of America’s West” will be the theme of conservation in the 21st century, a visiting professor said Thursday.

But determining what to restore will present its own problems.

Speaking to a crowd of about 60 people in the Memorial Union, University of Montana professor and author Dan Flores began his remarks with early European explorers’ descriptions of the variety and abundance of North American fauna.

Then, Flores described how much of that variety and abundance has vanished.

“I inhabit an impoverished nature,” he said.

Flores listed statistics on the decline of many animal populations since the arrival of Europeans in America, including the drop in bison from about 25 million bison two centuries ago to less than 250,000 today.

“Human inhabitants have been dismantling and simplifying” the West, he said. National parks and forests are an attempt to preserve select parts of the West, but over the next century efforts will focus on restoring the West, Flores said.

The premise of restoration, however, “is something of a doozy.”

Flores said the idea that America was pristine and natural before European colonization is a Eurocentric concept; instead, people had lived in America for more than a thousand years before Europeans arrived.

The America that European explorers found was actually a “managed landscape” shaped and modified by Native Americans, Flores said.

Native Americans influenced the environment by spreading species across the continents as well as killing off some species, he said.

For example, Flores said, buffer zones between warring tribes may have allowed animal populations to expand in the absence of hunters.

The America described by colonists may also have been a temporary anomaly, he said, explaining that diseases introduced by the first European explorers killed many Native Americans.

This decline in human numbers may have accounted for the unusually large animal populations encountered by later colonists, he said.

Because of the many factors that shaped America’s landscape, the definition of “America’s original wilderness” varies depending on what time period is examined, Flores said.

This means traditional assumptions, including the idea that buffalo are native to the American Southwest, may be incorrect in the broadest historical context, he said.

Flores said he has thought extensively about the questions he posed, and has decided his own answer is, “I don’t care.”

He said he finds early America attractive whether it was the result of nature or human intervention.

However, there are still other problems facing restoration efforts, Flores said.

“The America we rhapsodize about” had about 1/35 the current population of the United States and Canada, he said.

Flores said completely restoring America’s wilderness will not be possible with so many millions of additional people.

As a result, he said, restoration projects will occur mainly on a small scale.