The Great Plains - Flyover Country?
The Great Plains of America - just vast, flat lands with a bunch of grass and sage brush, right? Partially yeah, sure. North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana, parts of Colorado and Texas. Most people will only see them while flying to cities like Denver, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, or Las Vegas and don't give them a second thought. I get it; why the hell would you be interested in the plains when there are mountains, oceans, and cities to explore? You certainly can't get good sushi on the plains, nor can you hike up a mountain to take in the world around you. Not to mention the untold number of tornadoes that tear through the area every year.
Many folks don't want to live in these places, the population has been steadily declining since the 1920's. Many of the animals that live there, such as coyotes, deer, foxes, prairie dogs, the untold amount of domestic cattle, are seen as pests or simply uninteresting. Droughts have been rampant through the Great Plains and they were the location of the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930's. Now that I look at my last two paragraphs, I'm really not making a very good case for visiting and supporting these areas.
Now set your time machine to the 1830's and hop in (I am assuming you have one). Author Dan Flores refers to the Great Plains of this time (and earlier) as the "American Serengeti", and for very good reason. Back to a time when herds of buffalo were so big you could smell them from miles away. Pronghorns, having evolved their immense speed in the Pleistocene to evade now extinct species such as the American Cheetah, American Lion, and the Sabretooth Tiger, had a thriving population of over 10 million individuals. Grizzly bears, that we now associate with Yellowstone and the northern Rockies, could be found thriving along the rivers and streams of the plains. Wild horses ran free on the open land and forever changed the way Native Americans traveled and lived. The brilliant French-American naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon famously wrote, "it is impossible to describe or even conceive the vast multitudes of these animals."
Why is this important now? It offers and opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Bison and pronghorn were nearly brought to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries due to large scale market hunting and loss of habitat. Wolves were poisoned by the millions and nearly extirpated from the continent due to pressure from ranchers and trappers. Coyotes were treated the same, but due to their keen survival instincts and ability to adapt, could simply not be removed from their environment. Grizzly bears, only recently delisted from the Endangered Species list in Yellowstone, were considered dangerous and a nuisance and pushed out of the plains and into the mountains. Without our relatively recent North American Model of Conservation, many of these animals would be a thing of the past.
If you visit the Great Plains now, you can feel the history. Humanity's natural desire for expansion and exploration was met here by untamed, largely untouched land. They are the centerpiece of the stories of great frontiersmen and Native Americans alike. They are the last resting place for so many of America's last great megafauna. They hold untold opportunity - for animal reintroductions and recovery, habitat restorations, and all manner of other conservation efforts. They are a place to step back and reflect in an ever-changing world, an area that remains largely unchanged where we can hold on to bits and pieces of what we used to have and postulate about how we can improve ourselves and our country. They are a place to learn from our mistakes and failures.
Oh, and the sunsets aren't too shabby either.