ELKO – Historian and natural ecologist Dan Flores will speak about the Great Plains and the loss of its wildlife during his keynote address at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Flores was a professor at the University of Montana for 35 years. His focus was the history of the American West.
This will be Flores' first visit to the Gathering because this is the first time he has had “the freedom” to not be on campus. He retired about a year ago.
His speech will focus on topics he covers in his new book, which comes out in April, “American Serengeti – The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains.”
The Great Plains are divided into three regions: southern, central and northern. They are east of the Rocky Mountains. They stretch from West Texas to Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Great Plains start at about the 98th meridian. The settlers were coming out of the woodlands and tall-grass prairies and into the short-grass Great Plains.
“For 20,000 years of history, before we got here, was essentially kind of the North American analog to the Serengeti of Africa” Flores said. “It had some of the most dramatic and charismatic wild animals anywhere in North America, and of course more, in terms of sheer numbers, more animals than anywhere else in the American West.”
Before Europeans settled in the West, Flores said there were as many as 20 million to 25 million bison, 15 million pronghorns, a half million wolves and about 100,000 grizzly for tens of thousands of years. The West also was home to elk, bighorn sheep and coyotes.
“We reintroduced an animal that had evolved in America – the horse, which immediately went feral and wild across the Great Plains so that by the end of the 19th century or the early 20th century there were 3 million wild horses on the Great Plains,” he said. So we have this incredible Africa-like (collective) of animals -- that drew people from all over the world really -- and was one of the great ecological marvels of world history.
“Then in a period from about 1850 to about 1920, American culture and civilization in a space of about 70 years, basically wiped out almost all of those animals. It sort of rendered the Plains a kind of a blank slate.”
He said this period turned the Great Plains into “fly-over country.”
“They say the Plains are one of the most uninteresting parts of North America,” he said. “Well one of the reasons it’s uninteresting, of course, is that the original cast of characters have been gone for a hundred years or so."
Flores said those who attend the Cowboy Poetry Gathering are fascinated with the Old West.
“One of the things that resonates with a lot of people is this image of the original wildlife bounty of the Great Plains,” he said.
He also will talk about four or five people who lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and witnessed the change on the land.
They “spent the rest of their lives really mourning what had happened to the loss of this original Old West,” he said.
One person he will talk about is the artist Charlie Russell, who spent his life painting what he called Dreamtime Montana. He painted life on the Great Plains as he first saw it in the 1870s.
He also will talk about an old “mustanger” who thought horses were being sold to families or ranches, but when he found out they were being shipped to dog food factories he tried to stop it.
Flores said he will try to tell the stories of people who witnessed the change of all these animals being on the Great Plains to almost their entire erasure from the land and how it affected them.
Flores' keynote address is from 9:45 to 11 a.m. Thursday in the Elko Convention Center Auditorium. It is free with a three-day deluxe or day pass.