I am thrilled to present the following Q&A with Dr. Dan Flores. He has held the A. B. Hammond Chair in Western History at the University of Montana since 1992 and has written numerous books and articles on the Western US, US environmental history and Native Americans. If you happen to watch documentaries on the West you’ll recognize him as one of the most entertaining and erudite of experts.
Tell us a bit about your new book, Coyote America. What drew you to tell this story?
“Coyote America” will be published by Basic/Perseus in New York in late 2016 and will be my 9th book. I have written about bison, grizzlies, wild horses, and wolves, so a book about coyotes is kind of a natural progression. But why coyotes specifically?
First, I think of the coyote as a Darwinian mirror for us humans. Canines are our mammalian cousins, and coyote evolution has given them a remarkable and largely unsuspected similarity to us. I’m also attracted to coyote agency. Some species of animals that are associated with us, aware at some level of our dominance, have hitched a historical ride with humans as domesticates. Not coyotes. For the past 500 years, and perhaps longer, they have massively exploited our presence to their advantage, all while remaining wild and true to themselves in our very midst.
Third, coyotes are an American original, a canine species that evolved here and, unlike the wolf, is found nowhere else in the world except North America. It is a true native of the continent. Like all species, coyotes have a history, but theirs is not only intertwined with ours, it is a remarkable history that across the past 10,000 years has seen them revered and especially admired, later on subjects of confusion and ambiguity, still later maligned and despised, then earmarked for total eradication, finally championed by ecologists, cartoonists, environmentalists, and urbanites who are thrilled to discover that a large predator is roaming their back alleys.
Finally, coyotes are survivors, the rare large mammal capable of taking everything we can throw at them and emerging stronger, more widespread, and more successful. No other charismatic animals – not wolves, not bison, not grizzlies – have been able to do that. Coyotes have and deserve our entire admiration for it.
The book is a complete story of the animals – their evolution, their adaptive similarity to us, their function as Indian deities, the confusion Americans experienced on encountering them (fox? wolf? jackal?), the long war to eradicate them, their manifest destiny-like expansion across the country. I’m even doing a chapter titled “Wile E Coyote, Super Genius.”
Do you have a favorite coyote tale, either mythical or a personal experience?
Across 10,000 years of time almost too many great coyote stories have accumulated for me to have a favorite. But a recent one is up there. In 2009 a California family heading home from Utah had a pack of coyotes cross a high-speed interstate in front of them early in the morning. Nearly 12 hours later, with a couple of gas stops along the way, they were unpacking their car in the driveway when they discovered that they had driven all day with a coyote snagged like a bug in the grill of their car. He was bright-eyed and alert, and after hitchhiking halfway across the West with them was entirely unharmed except for two small cuts. Coyotes can survive anything.
Switching gears a bit, you are one of the “go to” historians when it comes to discussing the American bison. What does the bison represent to you?
I have done a variety of articles and book chapters on bison. They’re the iconic animal of the West, the defining holdout Pleistocene creature of an ecology that was at least half-a-million years in the making, and the central historical character in illustrating how the human selfish gene and unfettered capitalism could wreck that ecology in a stunningly short stretch of time. Bison represent the before/after West, especially of the Great Plains, once a wonder of the world, now flyover country. They do represent the future to me, as well.
Your 1991 article (“Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy : the Southern Plains from 1800 to 1850”) is an absolute classic and is referenced in nearly everything written about bison, whether scholarly or popular. Have the intervening years changed any of your conclusions about bison numbers, early 19th century tribal safe zones, the effects of disease and climate, etc.?
“Bison Ecology” first appeared in a very august publication, The Journal of American History, in 1991 and has been anthologized somewhere almost every year since then, so a great many people have read it. I have always regarded it as a story that was waiting to be told, one where the evidence for what I argued as a multi-causal explanation for the bison’s demise in the 19th century had been sitting there in plain sight for decades. I think that’s why – along with the force of my logic in assembling it, I hope – it never got much pushback from other historians, who in fact embraced the argument so quickly and completely that it has now replaced earlier models as the accepted explanation for what happened to bison in the 19th century. But no, I’ve not had any reason to alter my conclusions. Everyone else’s work since has seemed to buttress and extend my interpretation.
What are your thoughts about the current policy towards Yellowstone bison?
I am an advocate for Yellowstone bison being able to migrate out of the park in winter. Montana’s brucellosis position seems dubious to me, at best, given the lack of transmission in the wild from bison to cattle, and the presence of the disease in ungulates like elk. I also think the issue has dragged on unresolved for far too long.
I wonder if a persistent 19th century rancher animus towards a wild grazer like bison, with their association with Indians, doesn’t drive this debate. I think it is very interesting that alone among the big wildlife of the West, bison did not get to be wild animals the way elk, bears, etc., have.
I also love knowing that wolf packs are interacting with bison again in places like the Lamar Valley.
I am curious about your opinions re: the following ideas and/or places:
Proposed Buffalo Commons
Proposed Great Plains National Park
The American Prairie Reserve
I have advocated in books of mine like The Natural West both for restoration of wild bison herds on the Great Plains and for more Great Plains parks. Again, the historical irony that the Great Plains was the most exciting region of the West – not just to Americans but globally – in the 19th century, that this was the region at which the National Park idea was initially directed, and yet in our time the Plains is ignored, economically troubled, and the least represented western region in the NPS system, is almost mind-blowing. It was, of course, the wildlife of the Plains that was the major draw originally. But that windswept, grassed, ancient savannah landscape was very powerful, too, I think because it reminded us subliminally so much of Africa and our origins.
I want more parks and preserves of all kinds on the Great Plains, but if we expect to have a true Great Plains National Park that replicates George Catlin’s vision, with bison and wolves and all the rest, it’s going to have to be big – 4-5 times the size of Yellowstone. To me, Buffalo Commons projects and the American Prairie Reserve project are means to this end, and I see their properties likely being consolidated, ultimately, into this grandest and wildest of national parks.
Engaging in a bit of counterfactual history, do you think there was ever any chance of 19th century America preserving a representative swath of the “American Serengeti”, with its abundant bison, pronghorn, etc.?
I think, however, that this is a 21st or even 22nd century project. I don’t think we could have done it in the 19th century. The Romantic Age worship of the vertical (mountain beatitude) was too strong then. On the Plains, Indians and bison seemed like remnants from another time in an age of civilizing missions. I think we’ve had to de-populate animal life from the Plains before we could appreciate the richness of what was there, live through the Dust Bowl and understand its causes, live through declining human populations and outmigration on the Plains. And we may have to grasp the dimensions of global climate change on the Plains before we realize that the best use of the region has always been in just the form we found it in the early 19th century.
What’s your favorite Plains destination?
I’ve got lots of favorite Plains destinations but I admit to being charmed, still, by the Badlands country, both on the Northern Plains and down south where my natal Red River headed – Palo Duro Canyon on the Southern High Plains. Now that I think harder about it, I’d say that my true favorite place is the Tule Canyon Narrows, that stunning and vertical side-gorge of Palo Duro. In the 1980s I had many wonderful adventures there. But I haven’t been there in 20 years. It’s privately-owned, and when the owners found out I’d argued (in my 1990/2010 book Caprock Canyonlands) that if a place like Tule Canyon were located in any state but Texas it would be the centerpiece of a scenic public lands preserve, they wouldn’t let me in anymore.