Prairie Thunder -- Eric R. Pianka

Prairie Thunder

© Eric R. Pianka

Eastern North America was densely forested. As the early settlers moved west and entered into he central part of the continent, pioneers were surprised to encounter a vast treeless area with a dense vegetation of grasses now known as the Great Plains. They adopted the French word for meadow "Prairie" as the name for this North American grassland ecosystem. The wetter easternmost prairie supported tall bluestem grasses (dark green), whereas the drier western prairies had shorter grasses (light green). An broad ecotonal area in between became known as mixed grass prairie.

Prairies once covered most or all of what is now North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, as well as sizable portions of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and western and southern Minnesota.

The region has a continental climate with moderate rainfall. Summer thunderstorms set fires by lighning, preventing trees from intruding and providing ash, which acts as a fertilizer. Each winter, dead grasses contribute organic material to upper soil horizons. Over many millenia, deep rich black topsoils were formed.

As in other parts of the world such as the steppes of Eurasia and African savannahs, herds of large grazing mammals evolved including antelope and bison. Until the end of the Pleistocene about 10,000 years ago, North America harbored a diverse megafauna, which included a large American lion, American "cheetahs" (not close kin of African cheetahs, but related to modern cougers), large bears, wooly mammoths, mastodons, dire wolves, llamas, proghorn and saiga antelopes, two camels, two large bison species, American horses, a giant condor, ground sloths, and a giant beaver. Most, with the exception of bison and pronghorns, went extinct shortly after humans arrived about 10,000 years ago. Not all of these would have lived on the prairie but most likely the lion, cheetah, wolves, llamas, antelopes, camels, bison, and horses, did. Approximately 25,000 years ago the genus Bison passed from Asia, over the Bering Strait land bridge, to North America. Fossil bison, Bison latifrons, from this era were twice the size of modern day bison, weighing around 5,000 pounds with 6 foot horn spans! Bison adapted well to the environment of the North American Great Plains, and flourished in huge numbers (an estimated 60 million animals were present in the 1700's). Their geographic range extended from Canada o Mexico and from Buffalo New York west to the Rocky Mountains.

Prairie dogs are social ground squirrels. Family groups live in extensive tunnel systems known as "towns" or warrens that are defended as territories by males against other clans. Individuals serve as sentinels, giving specialized high-pitched alarm calls to relatives when threatened by predators such as hawks, ferrets, foxes, or coyotes. Prairie dog warning calls are diverse and constitute a sort of distinctive "language" that tells others specfic information about incoming predators. They feed primarily on seeds and leaves of prairie plants and occasionally on some insects. One very aggressive male, affectionately named Napoleon by human observers, fought with adjacent families and extended his group's warren to become very large. Long after Napoleon's death, his kin group held one of the largest territories. Prairie dogs once numbered in the millions but have disappeared from extensive areas due to human encroachment. Because they can carry bubonic plague, they have been deliberately poisoned. Oil and natural gas extraction have also negatively impacted populations of prairie dogs as well as many other species. Snakes and owls used prairie dog warrens as retreats. Black footed ferrets, once close to extinction but saved by a captive breeding program and still endangered, were major predators on prairie dogs, finding their sleeping prey in their burrows at night.

American bison once numbered in the millions: great herds migrated North-South with the seasons. The great herds of native Bison assured that there was never a shortage of food for the Plains Indians who inhabited these great grasslands. Bison was not only their main diet, but also provided materials for shelter, clothing, and many other staples of Indian lives. Bison was their life, their blood, their culture, and their future; only the Great Spirit himself was put above the bison.

"I love the land and the buffalo and will not part with it." -- Satanta, Kiowa

"I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free, and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures, and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there, and not within walls. I know every stream and every wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over that country. I lived like my fathers before me, and like them, I lived happily." -- Ten Bears, Comanche

Bison were hunted in various ways. Before the Indians rode horseback, they would encircle the herd with tribe members on foot. By getting the animals to mill within the ring they formed, Indians were able to fire large volleys of arrows into the herd until they downed an adequate number of animals.

In the 16th Century, when horses were acquired by the Plains Indians, bison hunting became easier. The Indians used other methods to harvest the mighty buffalo: stampeding herds over a cliff, driving the animals into a large natural trap, or into bogs or blind canyons. The most famous hunting technique was the "horse surround." Several hundred riders would form semicircles on two sides of the herd, then move in until they created a circle around its entirety. As pressure was
Virtually every portion of the bison was used by the Indians. The Indians invented numerous ways to prepare bison meat for consumption. Some parcels were eaten raw, some were cooked and other portions were dried as pemican, or jerky, a dried meat and fat concentrate. Hump roast was considered a real delicacy. Hides were used to make footwear, clothing, bedding and shelter. Bull hides were too heavy for teepees (cow hides served this purpose) but were used for floors and sleeping mats. Sinew was used for sewing and binding. Bones were utilized as tools. Bison played a part in practically every aspect of Indian life.

Early explorers and pioneers found bison trails to be level and safe passageways, extolling them because they were well packed down and did not lead to swamps or quicksand. In fact, many of our modern day roads and interstate highways were once bison trails (McPhee, 1987)!

Megaherbivores, including elephants, rhinos, and buffalo, evolved large size in part to avoid predators -- thus they exhibit little fear and stand their ground when approached by a puny human being. Of course, eventually humans invented gunpowder and in the late 1800's, Bison were almost hunted to extinction in an attempt to eradicate the Indians. Both the railroads and the Army encouraged their mass slaughter. For $10, people took luxury trips to shoot bison from the windows of the trains crossing the plains, leaving the great beasts' rotting bodies to litter the country.

General Sheridan said that buffalo hunters did more in five years to defeat the Indians than the U. S. Army could do in 50 years. Professional buffalo hunters shot hundreds of bison daily until their gun barrels were red hot. Most bison were killed for their tongues and hides and their remains were left behind to rot on the prairie. Bison herds were depleted so quickly hat some of the same people who killed them later collected mountains of bison bones to be sent east by rail and crushed for fertilizer.

Consider the history of the geographic range of the American bison -- a very beautiful animal originally found from Buffalo, New York, all the way to Sierra-Nevada before the 1800s. Huge herds of untold millions were quickly culled. People back then told about bison herds thundering all through the day and all through the night. They called it "prairie thunder." But that's gone for good, and you're not going to see or hear it in your lifetime, and that's a loss. When they built the Trans-continental Railroad, people would buy a ticket, be issued a gun and load it with big slugs and shoot bison as they rode across the continent, leaving their carcasses to rot on the wide open prairie. They split the bison herd into a northern herd and southern herd.

Excerpt from Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury (1976) Revised Bantam edition January 1976, pp. 82-84

Colonel Freeleigh slowly opened his eyes.

"Boy, Colonel," said Charlie, "that was fine. Now how about Pawnee Bill?"

"Pawnee Bill?"

"And the time you was on the prairie way back in '75."

"Pawnee Bill" The colonel moved into darkness. "Eighteen seventy-five . . . yes, me and Pawnee Bill on a little rise in the middle of the prairie, waiting. 'Shh!' says Pawnee Bill. 'Listen.' The prairie like a big stage all set for the storm to come. Thunder. Soft. Thunder again. Not so soft. And across that prairie as far as the eye could see this big ominous yellow-dark cloud full of black lightning, somehow sunk to earth, fifty miles wide, fifty miles long, a mile high, and no more than an inch off the ground. 'Lord!' I cried, 'Lord!' from up on my hill-'Lord!' The earth pounded like a mad heart, boys, a heart gone to panic. My bones shook fit to break. The earth shook; rat-a-tat rat-a-tat, boom! Rumble. That's a rare word: rumble. Oh, how that mighty storm rumbled along down, up, and over the rises, and all you could see was the cloud and nothing inside. 'That's them!' cried Pawnee Bill. And the cloud was dust! Not vapors or rain, no, but prairie dust flung up from the tinder-dry grass like fine corn meal, like pollen all blazed with sunlight now, for the sun had come out. I shouted again! Why? Because in all that hell-fire filtering dust now a veil moved aside and I saw them, I swear it! The grand army of the ancient prairie: the bison, the buffalo!"

The colonel let the silence build, then broke it again.

"Heads like giant Negroes' fists, bodies like locomotives! Twenty, fifty, two hundred thousand iron missiles shot out of the west, gone off the track and flailing cinders, their eyes like blazing coals, rumbling toward oblivion!"

"I saw that the dust rose up and for a little while showed me that sea of humps, of dolloping manes, black shaggy waves rising, falling . . . 'Shoot!' says Pawnee Bill. 'Shoot!' And I cock and aim. 'Shoot!' he says. And I stand there feeling like God's right hand, looking at the great vision of strength and violence going by, going by, midnight at noon, like a glinty funeral train all black and long and sad and forever and you don't fire at a funeral train, now do you, boys? do you? All I wanted then was for the dust to sink again and cover the black shapes of doom which pummeled and jostled on in great burdensome commotions. And, boys, the dust came down. The cloud hid the million feet that were drumming up the thunder and dusting out the storm. I heard Pawnee Bill curse and hit my arm. But I was glad I hadn't touched that cloud or the power within that cloud with so much as a pellet of lead. I just wanted to stand watching time bundle by in great trundlings all hid by the storm the bison made and carried with them toward eternity."

"An hour, three hours, six, it took for the storm to pass on away over the horizon toward less kind men than me. Pawnee Bill was gone, I stood alone, stone deaf. I walked all numb through a town a hundred miles south and heard not the voices of men and was satisfied not to hear. For a little while I wanted to remember the thunder. I hear it still, on summer afternoons like this when the rain shapes over the lake; a fearsome, wondrous sound . . . one I wish you might have heard."

Prairie thunder is gone for now, but maybe not forever. I have a small herd of bison. They are absolutely magnificent animals. My herd bull, Lucifer stands six feet tall and weighs about 2700 pounds - when Lucifer wants to, he goes over the fence-and when he does (I've never actually seen it), the earth must shudder at this spot for a little while. His habit of jumping is how Lucifer earned his name.

When I announced that I was the proud owner of a herd of 5 young bison: one of my clever graduate students responded with "OK, from now on, you're 'Tatonka Pianka'." (Tatonka, spelled Tatanka, is the Lakota Sioux word for bison.) On a cold night that winter, we had a hard frost: I was amazed to find my tatanka bedded down, silvered with frost early the next AM. Their hair must be an extremely good insulator!

I trained them to respond to "Come on, tatanka!" They will follow me if I have a bag of cubes. Sometimes, when I return from work, and not a single bison is in sight, I call out "Tatanka!" and I'm rewarded with the sound of thundering hoof beats as they come racing up to me to be fed. You can watch this and get a glimpse of what Prairie thunder must have been like at (Turn up volume) -- the last big bull is Lucifer).

Bison hunters had done more to control the American Indian than all the cavalry put together. We basically starved out a lot of American Indians - those that we didn't deliberately kill instantly by giving them blankets infected with smallpox and measles.

We don't like to talk about it, but our ancestors practiced genocide. We stole this continent from other people. We just took it because we could and never looked back. We have to get off our anthropocentric high horse. Biodiversity has a value beyond how it can be used by humans. Other Earthlings have been here longer than us - much, much longer - and they have a right to this planet too - that includes wasps that sting you, ants that bite you, scorpions and rattlesnakes - it includes bears, wolves and wolverines and all kinds of other animals that we have pushed to very brink of extinction.

Last updated 3 September 2014 by Eric R. Pianka