Lewis and Clark notes reveal history of human impacts

CORVALLIS Native Americans had a major impact on the wildlife of the American West for hundreds of years prior to European settlement, a report from Oregon State University indicates, based on data from one of the most accurate surveys of its time the journals of Lewis and Clark.

It is a myth that vast areas of the West existed in some sort of pristine state, largely unaffected by humans until the 1800s, the research concludes. In fact, the larger wildlife such as deer, elk or buffalo that were hunted by Native Americans appear to have populations that may have fluctuated greatly, up and down, based on the hunting pressure on them decades or centuries before European settlers ever arrived.

Such concepts are important to understand because modern wildlife and ecological management practices often use pre-European settlement as a "baseline" for later comparisons, with the implication that humans were having little or no impact on the environment at that time.

That assumption is inaccurate, the OSU researchers say.

"Humans in North America have always interacted with their environment, and this has been going on for a long, long time," said Andrea Laliberte, a rangeland remote sensing scientist who did this study while a graduate student at OSU. "Our findings indicate that even the relatively low human population densities that were present before European settlement show a considerable impact on wildlife. It would be almost impossible to determine what these lands looked like without humans."

The new study, which was just published in the journal Bioscience, essentially concluded that in the early 1800s, large game animal populations existed in much higher numbers where human populations were low. Where Native American populations were higher, the animals existed in fewer numbers, to the point of near extinction in some locations and instances.

To help unravel the ecological mysteries of the past, Laliberte and O

Contact: William Ripple
Oregon State University

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