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Great Wildlife of the Great Plains. Paul A. Johnsgard. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2003. 309 pp., illus. $29.95 (ISBN 0700612246 cloth).

The Great Plains are changing as the nation changes. City folks are buying up the scenic parts at fantastic prices and questing for the mythic cowboy lifestyle. Farmers and ranchers are eking out a living at best, using pivot irrigation or, in many places, abandoning what used to be great plains. Meanwhile, an increasingly urban US population looks on with ever-diminishing knowledge of nature, and with little idea of what the Great Plains used to be. This home where the buffalo roamed is the subject of Paul Johnsgard's Great Wildlife of the Great Plains.

Written in the style of a naturalist's notebook, Great Wildlife is a work of sensitivity, beauty, and elegance. With chapters centered on particular habitats (“Shaded Shorelines and Tall Trees”) or taxa (“Waders, Dabblers, and Divers”), Johnsgard gives us a view of the plains that is wistful and longing, seeming more like an early 20th- than an early 21st-century account. This book covers hundreds of taxa, giving facts, figures, and personal observations. We're given a tour through many years of Johnsgard's field notes, backed by the authority of his long career of scholarly research.

Although some species are briefly mentioned in long lists (which could prove tiresome to a reader not familiar with the taxa), other species are carefully described with the professional naturalist's keen eye, developed from long personal observation. The author takes us with him to a blind to observe lesser prairie chickens, to the Black Hills to look at Townsend's solitaires, and to the Nebraska Sandhills to find tiger salamanders. Moving rapidly from one species to another, the author is at times quite deft and at times less so. The smooth transition from goshawk to ruffed grouse works smoothly—“One of the favorite prey of goshawks is the ruffed grouse.” But after a section on peregrine falcons, the author moves to barn owls with the awkward segue, “Like peregrines, barn owls have different nest-site tendencies now than they did in presettlement times.”

I found very few errors, chiefly typographic or editing lapses. On page 10, for example, the author refers to the upland plover, but two pages later he uses the more recent name “upland sandpiper.” A mention of North Pass on page 116 apparently refers to Wyoming's famous South Pass. A few factual errors slipped in: For example, the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets to the Shirley Basin of Wyoming has had problems caused by plague, but it has not failed, as Johnsgard states.

The language is spare and elegant. “Although usually silent, during spring the marshes of the Dakotas and Nebraska fairly ring with the tinkling calls of western grebes, resembling sleigh bells in the distance.” Perhaps so—but most people today are hearing neither sleigh bells nor grebes. And that was the one problem I had with this book. I read Great Wildlife with a growing and maddening sense of claustrophobia, knowing that these things are rapidly disappearing. I began to feel that I was seeing final glimpses of a world gone by. Although not gloomy on the surface, the book is a litany of what we have lost and continue to lose.

Each species highlight is followed by the sad facts. Under grassland sparrows we learn that “the estimated rate of national decline in the Henslow's sparrow was the third greatest of all 424 species analyzed.” And “with its many diverse ecological connections, it was inevitable that the sad history of the prairie dog would be reflected in the fortunes of many other high plains species. The mountain plover, swift fox, and black-footed ferret are now all variously threatened or endangered at state or national levels.” In an unemotional, factual way, Johnsgard spells it out for species after species: down by this amount or reduced to this small area. The tallies of percentages lost, breeding declines, and acres converted are chilling.

Johnsgard is an evocative storyteller. Each natural history gem leaves you longing for the experience: “Small spruce trees seem to be a favorite winter roost site [for saw-whet owls], and it is always a special thrill to peer into a snow-covered spruce and see a tiny owl intently staring back at you.” In my 48 years as a birder, I have seen perhaps three saw-whet owls staring out of trees in the manner Johnsgard describes. I've whistled in more than that number by imitating their calls. And I've caught enough of them in mist nets to know that they're still out there in larger numbers than nonbirders would suspect. But how many people in our society have ever seen one? How many people know that a thing called a saw-whet owl even exists? We're at the point where only serious naturalists can see nature as Johnsgard does, and then only with luck. For most Americans, these species no longer exist. Although 19th-century natural histories were full of such anecdotes, the 21st-century reader has a sinking feeling that these accounts will soon sound—may already sound—like a Catlin account of American Indians on the plains.

The book's last chapter, “What is Still So Great about the Great Plains?” is the saddest of all. It doesn't conclude that the Great Plains are doomed, nor does it argue for solutions such as the “Buffalo Commons” (Callenbach 1996). Instead, Johnsgard again tallies the enormous habitat losses and directs the reader to an appendix listing the few places you can still go to see the remaining shards of what was once our nation's grandest treasure.

And grand it was. When Lewis and Clark crossed the Great Plains in 1805, they saw a landscape unimaginable today: “emence numbers of antelopes in the forks of the river, Buffalow & Elk & Deer is also plenty. Beaver is in every bend.” The bison are now obviously gone, but it is less obvious how much the rest of the ecosystem has declined. Because of farming and ranching practices, today's Great Plains are a pale ghost of what they once were. It is not only that the large predators have all been exterminated from the Great Plains; there are also fewer animals present, because the food web has been truncated, “unpopular” animals persecuted, weeds spread, the landscape fragmented, and water diverted to cattle and their feed (Freilich et al. 2003).

This book should spur readers to action. Reading Great Wildlife was a visceral reminder that past conservation practices have failed us. Now is the time to change our strategies. Perhaps bison and wolves will again one day move across the Great Plains and bring with them burrowing owls, American burying beetles, least terns, black-footed ferrets, and other species now in danger of extinction. Johnsgard's book gives us a feel of the once and future plains. The Buffalo Commons deserves a try. The Commons is a yet-untried vision in which bison are restored, fences are torn down, and the plains are allowed to go wild. Based in part on potential ecotourism dollars, and at first reviled by ranchers, the idea has persisted and has continued to gain credence. At least one or two national grasslands should be set to the task and nearby ranchers invited to join in. The vision could be realized if enough people willed it to be. In the meantime, Great Wildlife of the Great Plains is a lovely and engrossing read about what might have been.

References cited

  1. E. Callenbach 1996. Bring Back the Buffalo! A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains. Washington (DC): Island Press. Google Scholar

  2. J. E. Freilich, J. M. Emlen, J. J. Duda, D. C. Freeman, and P. J. Cafaro . 2003. Ecological effects of ranching: A six-point critique. BioScience 53:759–765. Google Scholar


JERRY FREILICH "A LONGING LOOK AT THE GREAT PLAINS," BioScience 54(4), (1 April 2004).[0363:ALLATG]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 April 2004

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