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July 17, 1806. Captain Meriwether Lewis, traveling through the Great Plains of the American West, writes in his notebook, “The grass is naturally short and at present has been rendered much more so by the graizing of the buffaloe, the whole face of the country… looks like a well shaved bowling green, in which immense and numerous herds of buffaloe were seen feeding attended by their scarcely less numerous sheepherds the wolves.”
The American West has long been a rich treasure trove of fascinating flora and fauna, and modern travelers to the “American Serengeti” can still see many of the features that Lewis and Clark might have come upon, and still others in more obscure corners of the West. The American pronghorn, fastest land animal after the cheetah; the Gila monster, the only venomous lizard in the United States; pale blue-eyed grass, one of the smallest and rarest members of the iris family; playful, communal prairie dogs and the species that depend on them, including the black-footed ferret, the mountain plover, and the burrowing owl to name only a few. The West is home to beauty both great and small, from the majestic landscape of Glacier National Park to a host of butterflies such as the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot, the unsilvered fritillary, and the bay skipper, all of which have very limited ranges and are found nowhere else in the world.
But much of what Lewis and Clark saw in the 1800s has since disappeared. Predator control campaigns and unrestricted hunting have taken their toll on our larger fauna and species viewed as “vermin.” The teeming herds of buffalo, elk, and pronghorn are gone or diminished, and the gray wolf has vanished from 95 percent of its former range. Grizzly bears are restricted to a tiny corner of the lower 48. All five species of prairie dog have experience huge declines – mainly because of extermination campaigns, poisoning, and shooting – with some species reduced to just 2 percent of their historic numbers.
The threats to the unique repository of biodiversity in the West are numerous and varied. Development and agriculture have overtaken many of the West’s native ecosystems. Unsustainable livestock grazing practices, fueled by government subsidies and lack of oversight, threaten the integrity of Western streams, forests, deserts, and grasslands. Cattle denude grasslands of native grass, pushing grassland-dependent species such as the Arizona striped whiptail out of their habitat. Cattle trample the banks of streams and pollute their water with silt and droppings, leaving them inhospitable for rare fish such as the prairie chub. Off-road vehicles fragment habitat with deeply cut and ever-proliferating trails and can visit sudden death upon slow wanderers like the Sonoran desert tortoise. Oil and gas drilling destroys the homes and dancing grounds of the lesser prairie-chicken and the greater sage-grouse, whose unique mating dances may be some of the most colorful natural history pageants in the West. And a host of other, more secretive animals are suffering in silence: for example, the Jemez Mountains salamander, which spends much of its life underground, is slipping into oblivion. The tiny mist forestfly is losing the glacier-fed streams it depends on due to climate change. And other cryptic invertebrates and plants may disappear from the West before they are even discovered, taking their secrets and their unique contributions to biodiversity with them.
The heart of WildEarth Guardians’ mission is preserving all the threads in the West’s web of life, both great and small. Each animal and plant in these pages is worth saving, not only for their own sakes, but because their decline is an indicator of the loss of something much greater: healthy grasslands and streams, diverse deserts, untrammeled forests, rich coastal marshes, and wild mountains. By protecting the diversity of life in the West, we intend to safeguard this irreplaceable part of our American heritage for future generations of animals, plants, and people.