SI Vault
 
THE BALANCE SHEET
Peter Matthiessen
November 16, 1959
Seventy bloody years, from 1840 to 1910, shaped the final destiny of American wildlife. In that brief period of westward expansion, the continent and its wild inhabitants were changed forever. Here the large figures show the animal population at its 1840 level, the small inset figures what was left of them. The bison, numbered in tens of millions, shrank to a bare 2,000. The elk were reduced from about 10 million to less than a tenth that number. Bighorn sheep in 1840 counted between 1� and 2 million; about 10,000 survived. The pronghorn antelope almost disappeared (from 30 million or 40 million to 20,000); today it is on the road back. Of the grizzly bear, no good estimates existed in the early 19th century, though it was not rare to see 30 or 40 in a day; by 1910 the total grizzly population had diminished to about 2,000. The mountain goat survived by virtue of its inaccessible terrain. Surprisingly, coyotes showed no decline, though wolves were reduced from perhaps 2 million to 2,000 or 3,000. Red fox, mink and otter still existed in almost the same numbers, but the beaver by 1910 was almost extinct; restocking saved it. Today, a century after the massacre, the picture is at last beginning to be encouraging; but much remains to be done.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 16, 1959

The Balance Sheet

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Seventy bloody years, from 1840 to 1910, shaped the final destiny of American wildlife. In that brief period of westward expansion, the continent and its wild inhabitants were changed forever. Here the large figures show the animal population at its 1840 level, the small inset figures what was left of them. The bison, numbered in tens of millions, shrank to a bare 2,000. The elk were reduced from about 10 million to less than a tenth that number. Bighorn sheep in 1840 counted between 1� and 2 million; about 10,000 survived. The pronghorn antelope almost disappeared (from 30 million or 40 million to 20,000); today it is on the road back. Of the grizzly bear, no good estimates existed in the early 19th century, though it was not rare to see 30 or 40 in a day; by 1910 the total grizzly population had diminished to about 2,000. The mountain goat survived by virtue of its inaccessible terrain. Surprisingly, coyotes showed no decline, though wolves were reduced from perhaps 2 million to 2,000 or 3,000. Red fox, mink and otter still existed in almost the same numbers, but the beaver by 1910 was almost extinct; restocking saved it. Today, a century after the massacre, the picture is at last beginning to be encouraging; but much remains to be done.

1