Dan Flores. American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016. 222 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2227-6.
Reviewed by Karen D'Onofrio (University of Colorado Boulder)
Published on H-Environment (August, 2016)
Commissioned by David T. Benac (Western Michigan University)
In American Serengeti, Dan Flores transports the reader back in time and across the globe as he draws comparisons between the Great Plains grasslands of North America and the savanna grasslands (the Serengeti) of East Africa. With the big history/deep history approach that Flores employs so well, the reader is taken on a natural historical journey through the Great Plains ecosystems spanning millions of years. On this journey, he explores the evolving history of the Great Plains ecosystem by focusing on the relationships between seven very distinct mammals and the changing environment. Flores pays particular attention to the changes brought about by natural causes and human influences.
The first chapter charts the arrival of Homo sapiens (humans) into North America during the Pleistocene epoch. Their arrival profoundly altered the North American landscape and ecosystems, but these early humans were, according to Flores, the first to truly experience “untouched nature” (p. 20). Flores then proceeds to describe the human presence on the plains in three phases. The first phase focuses on deep history and charts the arrival of humans around fourteen thousand years ago and the subsequent demise of the megafauna. The second phase describes the Archaic people who “perfected a long-term sustainable life way on the plains” (p. 21). These people introduced the bow and arrow, developed farming practices, and established trading networks with other groups of Native peoples. And finally the last phase, described as the “modern era,” witnesses the arrival of Europeans and the reintroduction of the horse and other domesticated animals from Europe. Flores concludes that the Great Plains is an anthropogenic environment—a landscape entirely created by human activities. This is just one of the themes that Flores revisits throughout the book.
Flores covers a lot of ground in this book. In subsequent chapters dealing with large North American mammals, he explores a variety of themes and draws on methodologies employed in intellectual and cultural history. The result is a rich history of the Great Plains. Many of the megafauna disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene, but the pronghorn and the coyote managed to survive, despite the efforts of humans to hunt or exterminate them. Flores suggests that the ability of these mammals to adapt to the presence of humans and ecological changes led to their survival. The chapter on the horse explores its reintroduction into North America by the Spanish during the modern era. Flores discusses how Native tribes co-opted the horse to use in their hunting traditions and trade networks. He goes on to explore the ontology of human reactions to wild animals in his chapter on the grizzly bear, arguing that human attitudes and fears toward wild animals emerged from a deep culture history. It is these attitudes and fears, Flores argues, that have shaped the Great Plains landscape, especially in how humans view carnivores as in need of extermination. The chapter on the bison is timely, considering the recent nomination of the American bison to the status of the national mammal. The story of the bison and its “rescue” from near extinction is well known, but as Flores points out, Native peoples also play a large role in the successful reintroduction of the bison into the plains landscape. The final animal chapter focuses on efforts to reintroduce the wolf and laments the reasons for the Mountain West as the location for recovery efforts rather than the highly cultivated landscape of the Great Plains. Ironically, the very same federal institutions responsible for the carnivore extermination programs of the early twentieth century undertook the successful reintroduction of the wolf during the latter part of that century.
The final chapter explores the visions and imaginations of the Great Plains, from the many perspectives of nineteenth-century artists and writers, to the federal government, conservationists, and biologists of the twenty-first century. Flores charts the changing attitude toward the environment by the federal government agencies from one based in preserving land for its scenic values, to one focused on preserving the land for its ecological value. And finally, Flores discusses a plan put forward by conservation biologists, which identifies an area in eastern Montana as the most likely place for a restored “American Serengeti.” Flores acknowledges, however, the challenges ahead if the plan is to materialize, not least the challenge of convincing ranchers to accept the reintroduction of large carnivores into the humanized landscape.
Flores clearly identifies the culprit Homo sapiens as the species responsible for the many changes to the Great Plains landscape, but he also offers us hope and notes that “we” can make amends for the wrongs of the past. Although Flores references the similarities between the large mammals found in North America and the African Serengeti, these connections could have benefited from some deeper analysis. Flores might have, for example, extended his discussion to include the different attitudes and approaches to wildlife and land conservation in Africa compared to the United States and considered whether the United States could learn anything about conservation and rewilding efforts from other nations.
Ultimately, American Serengeti is a fascinating and approachable book that is suitable for students, scholars, and nonacademic audiences who enjoy reading about the intersections between natural history and the environmental history of the American West.
. See also Dan Flores, Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History (New York: Basic Books, 2016).
. See U.S. Department of the Interior, “15 Facts about Our National Mammal: The American Bison,” (blog), May 9, 2016, https://www.doi.gov/blog/15-facts-about-our-national-mammal-american-bison.
. Edward O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (New York: Liveright, 2016), 179-180.
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Karen D'Onofrio. Review of Flores, Dan, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains.
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