April 4, 2002
The abundance of grizzly bears, bison, wolves, salmon and other wildlife species that once inhabited the American West lands explored by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery nearly 200 years ago, is now but a distant memory, according to a new report by the Sierra Club.
The report analyzes the plants and animals that inhabit (or in some cases, inhabited), the vast terrain explored by Lewis and Clark in the 19th century and provides a look at the status of forests, mountains and plains that the expedition documented.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent Captain Meriwether Lewis, Captain William Clark and the men who made up their Corps of Discovery on an 8,000-mile round-trip journey across the West. Their main purpose was to map and explore the western territory (known then as Louisiana, having recently been acquired from France) and to establish trade routes to the Pacific Ocean.
Jefferson also instructed the explorers to observe “the animals of the country generally, and especially those not known in the U.S. the remains and accounts of any which may [be] deemed rare or extinct” and to note “the face of the country, it’s growth and vegetable productions.” Jefferson also directed the expedition to record the climate, including such details as when flowers bloomed and birds migrated.
During their journey, Lewis and Clark described 178 plants and 122 animals new to science. They also provided information about previously known species, including notes on western ranges and behaviors. The Lewis and Clark journals provide a clear record of the West’s wildlands and wildlife before mass settlement.
A recurring theme in the explorers’ journals is an overwhelming sense of abundance of wildlife. Just 200 years ago, massive bison migrations shook the grasslands, salmon choked the Columbia River and its tributaries, and wolves roamed from North Dakota to California.
Today’s conditions, according to the Sierra Club, present serious threats to the survival of many species, although most of the species the explorers observed still exist. Grizzly bears have been reduced to around 1,000 from a population that once topped 100,000. Bison that numbered up to 70 million now roam in tiny herds on scattered parks and grasslands. Only 20,000 exist in the wild. Black-footed ferrets, California condors, woodland caribou and whooping cranes are each down to only a handful of individuals with scientists hovering over them, trying to establish healthy wild populations. And some, like the passenger pigeon that the Corps saw in mass migrations and the colorful Carolina parakeet, are now extinct.
However, elk, beaver and pronghorn were far worse off at the expedition’s centennial, at the turn of the 19th century, than they are today.
In its report, the Sierra Club pointed out that the key to preserving species is preserving habitat. However, the group said logging continues to strip away forests required by the reclusive lynx and increase erosion and muddy streams where salmon spawn. Missouri River dams disrupt the natural water flows that the interior least tern and piping plover depend on during breeding season. Snake River dams create a lethal gauntlet for salmon and steelhead. Oil and gas drilling brings pollution, disturbances and roads to the grizzly bear’s refuges. Toxic mining, industrial waste and polluted runoff from cities and industrialized agriculture threaten many waterways.
As part of its Lewis and Clark campaign, the Sierra Club has developed the following recommendations to protect the wildlands Lewis and Clark explored and ensure survival for the animals that depend on them.
- Permanently protect undeveloped wildlands including designating some areas in the National Forests, National Grasslands and Bureau of Land Management lands as wilderness, national monuments, and national recreation and conservation areas.
- Implement a permanent ban on new road building and logging in all remaining roadless areas as a first step to protecting the watersheds and habitats of federal public lands.
- Reduce the expansive network of roads on our federal public lands to restore large blocks of habitat and essential migration corridors for wildlife, and to protect water quality and fisheries.
- Ban oil and gas drilling in sensitive areas on public lands.
- Keep dirt bikes, snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles out of sensitive areas. The growing use of these machines in the wild country harms habitat and ruins opportunities for solitude and recreation.
- Increase federal Land and Water Conservation Fund monies to buy private lands that provide critical wildlife habitat and acquire conservation and public access easements to protect areas from sprawling development.
- Keep the grizzly bear listed as a threatened species until adequate habitat has been protected to allow healthy, connected populations to recover.
- Remove the earthen sections of the four lower Snake River dams to restore 140 miles of free-flowing river and salmon and steelhead runs that are in danger of extinction.
To download a copy of the full report, go to http://www.sierraclub.org/lewisandclark/species/index.asp
Below is a selection of the species featured in the What’s Lost, What’s Left section of the report. The chart shows the species’ historic ranges, current ranges within the lands Lewis and Clark explored, and current status.
|WHAT’S LOST; WHAT’S LEFT|
|Species Name||States in which species still exist along the Lewis & Clark trail||Historic range||Status|
|American bison||MT, ND, NE, SD, WY||The great plains to the West Coast.||Exist only in national parks and wildlife reserves.|
|Black-footed ferret||MT, SD, WY||Northern Mexico to southern Saskatchewan, Canada.||Listed as an endangered species in 1967. Limited to 7 reintroduced populations.|
|Black-tailed prairie dog||MT, ND, NE, SD, WY||The greater American West.||Candidate species for federal listing as endangered.|
|Gray wolf||ID, MT, WY (recent sightings in ND, WA)||Once plentiful throughout most of North America.||Listed as Endangered in lower 48 states.|
|Grizzly bear||ID, MT, WY||Midwestern prairies to the west coast of U.S.||Listed as Threatened in lower 48 United States since 1975.|
|Woodland caribou||WA and ID’s Selkirk Mountains||The northern tier of the U.S. including AK, ID, WA (ME, MI, MN, MT, NH, VT, WI) and Canada.||Listed as endangered in last existing habitat in WA and ID’s Selkirk Mountains. Considered the most endangered mammal in the US.|
|Canada lynx||ID, MT, OR, WA, WY, extinct in ND||Ranged from AK across Canada and into as many as 16 of the lower 48 states.||Listed as a threatened species in 2000 for lower 48 states.|
|Sea otter||WA, possibly extinct in OR The Pacific Rim from AK to Baja California, Mexico.||Occupies less than half its former range||Listed as a threatened species for populations in WA, OR, California and Mexico.|
|Salmon||CA, ID, OR, WA Most of the Pacific Northwest.||Healthy wild runs exist only in a pocket of WA state.||Threatened and endangered runs inhabit WA, ID, OR & CA.|
|Pacific yew||WA, OR, MT, ID||Many regions of AK, CA, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA into Alberta and British Columbia, Canada.||Not listed. Once thought of as a trash species by loggers, was found to combat leukemia as the drug, Taxol.|
|Whooping crane||NE, WY; migratory transient in MT, SD; exotic in ID; presumed extirpated in ND.||Most of central and eastern North America.||Listed as an endangered species with some non-essential experimental populations in the Rocky Mountains.|