In 1803, our third President, Thomas Jefferson, bought nearly 1 million square miles of land in the Western United States from the struggling French leader Napoleon for the amazingly cheap price of 3 cents per acre. (An Acre is roughly the size of a football field.) A good deal.
The next year Jefferson, who also wrote the Declaration of Independence and had a cool round house in Virginia, sent his friends, Captains Lewis and Clark, out to explore these new lands with a bunch of soldiers, a black slave, a young Indian woman named Sacajawea, and a few small boats. They pulled these boats all the way up the Missouri River, thousands of miles, to the Continental Divide and then rode down the western slope rivers to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. Amazing.
They found many astounding things in the west like the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, Grizzly Bears and lots of Mosquitos but the most amazing thing they found were the ‘Buffaloe’ – as they called them, almost 100 million Buffalo. With giant herds, as large as some eastern states, that would take several days to pass by, these giant prehistoric animals stretched out as far as the eye could see.
These weren’t Buffalo, but actually American Bison (Bison Bison, so good they named it twice, officially in Latin). Buffalo didn’t live in North America, they lived in Africa as the fierce Water Buffalo. Lewis and Clark didn’t know that but we still call them Buffalo today, and they don’t seem to mind. All Lewis and Clark knew was that the Bison had lots of meat that tasted good and supplied their soldiers with nutrition and blankets, clothes and tents for much of their epic trip.
The Captains also noticed that the Native Americans that lived out west, and had for a very long time, depended on the Bison, or Tatanka as they called them, for food and shelter, clothing and hats, jewelry and tools. They used every part of Tatanka and wasted none of it. In fact they depended on the Tatanka for so much that it was a sacred animal that they worshiped and revered above all other animals, since their lives were so intimately intertwined. They lived in harmony with the Bison and followed the great herds for all that they supplied. Their lives were in balance with the great herds.
The Bison were perfectly suited to live on the Great Plains with thick hair and hides that could withstand temperatures from 120 above to 50 below zero. They could move snow with their giant heads and forage grass all year long and sustain their big strong bodies everywhere they roamed. They ate and then fertilized and aerated the grasses of the Great Plains and they could protect themselves and their offspring from wolves and bears and any other predator, except for one, man.
As white settlers followed Lewis and Clark out west, they discovered these seemingly endless herds and began to hunt them for food and for fun, for their horns and their tongues. They hunted them almost to extinction to help them control the Native Americans by eliminating their main food source and natural resource. Soon almost all the bison were gone. I say almost, and it is a good thing, because extinction is forever.
The settlers still needed to eat when the bison were gone, so they imported fancy cows from Europe but realized they were ill suited to the weather and the feed of the Great Plains. They could not forage in the snow and had to be fed in the winter. In one great blizzard of 1898, half of them died from the wind and the snow and the cold. But the Bison were gone and the white men were hungry so they kept importing and growing and feeding their fancy cows.
The farmers had to grow hay and alfalfa and grass in the summer for the cows to eat in the winter. They would let the cows roam the open plains and the mountains in the summer and then bring them back to the farm to protect and feed them in the winter. Then the farmers realized that the Great Plains west of St Louis did not get enough rain to grow grass naturally so they had to dig canals from the rivers to irrigate their fields so they could grow feed for their cows. They diverted and plumbed the rivers to flow to their fields for feed and dried up many rivers doing it, killing the fish and the riparian plants and animals that depend on the rivers to live. Things were starting to get out of whack.
This continued this for almost 100 years with great herds of cows filling up and dominating the lands and the rivers of the western United States. Then in the after World War II things got worse. Men had perfected how to build dams on rivers to save the snow melt and natural flow to use in the summer. They also learned how to put pumps into underground water wells and pump water up from deep within the earth. This made it easier for them to grow even more grass and feed even more cows but this heavy production took its toll on the Great Plains.
When you fly over the Great Plains today you can see giant circles and squares of green crops with sprinklers watering the crops and a well in the middle pumping water from a dam or a river or from an underground river. These underground rivers are called aquifers. These aquifers are like big sponges that are filled up with water from rain and snow or from lakes and rivers, some that flowed millions of years ago.
One of the biggest aquifers is named the Ogallala Aquifer named after the town in Nebraska, that was named after the Ogallala Sioux Indians. This aquifer stretches from The Dakotas to Texas and from Colorado to Iowa. It is huge and holds enough water to cover 2 billion acres (or football fields – remember) with a foot of water. But it is not endless.
The water in this aquifer was put there 5 million years ago from runoff from an ancestral mountain range, before the Rocky Mountains. This aquifer now supplies a lot of water to a lot of farms and cities. They are pulling water out of it faster and faster to the point that it is dropping like a rock and may someday dry up. That might be in 5 years or it might be in 50 years, depending on how much is there and how much we take out, but if it dries up it could take 6000 years to replenish. Unfortunately when the big sponge dries out it compresses and collapses and then loses its ability to hold water so it might not ever refill. That would be catastrophic to the animals and people who live on the Great Plains.
A herd the size of the original American Bison herd could produce enough meat to supply every man, woman and child in the United States today with a quarter pound Bison burger, every day, forever, and still maintain the great herd. This Bison herd was a perfectly sustainable food source that we squandered once but can resurrect and recover again.
Many of our natural resources are jeopardized like this; Bison and water, trees and grass, land and lakes, rivers and streams, coal and oil, air and climate. They are underestimated and underappreciated and are squandered before we know what we are doing or what we had. The American Bison is a symbol of our American bounty, our need and our greed and our short sighted solutions with respect to the natural world. At the same time the Bison is a symbol of a sustainable future solution, where we live within our ways and means, the natural supply and demand and the limits of our resources where we actually Need Less. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.