The Second Great American Extinction Event (1600s to 1900s)
This is the second chapter of a three-part series about extinctions in North America. Check out the first chapter here.
As we saw in the first part of this series, the American megafauna came under assault as soon as people discovered North America. By the time the Europeans arrived, however, the First Americans had largely come to coexist with a handful of Pleistocene survivors.
The most famous of these animals was the bison. Once found across much of the country, the Great Plains herds are the stuff of legend — and rightly so. When European settlers spread west, tens of millions of bison chewed their way across the grasslands in herds that stretched twenty or thirty miles in every direction. They roamed alongside ocean-like gatherings of elk and pronghorn that were, in the words of John James Audubon, “impossible to describe.”
Less appreciated, but equally important, was the prairie dog.
Occupying hundreds of millions of acres, prairie dog towns literally stretched for miles. A single town in Texas was documented at 250 miles long and 100 miles wide. Because prairie dogs maintain short grass on the edge of their communities, they attracted untold numbers of bison who feasted on the fresh shoots. In the interior of dog towns, forbs and shrubs fed pronghorn. And prairie dogs themselves, in their abundance, provided food for black-footed ferret, swift fox, birds of prey, and other plains meat-eaters.
Despite their abundance, these animals didn’t last long. Market hunters spread across the country and, within less than a century, cleansed the plains of non-human life.
The death toll was staggering: billions of prairie dogs were exterminated; the carcasses of tens of millions of bison were left to rot; 20–50 million pronghorn were skinned; 60 million beavers were dispatched; and untold millions of elk vanished in this frenzied bloodbath.
The predators fared even worse. 50,000 grizzly bears were killed, as were millions of wolves, mountain lions, and other small carnivores. Thanks to a handful of dedicated conservationists, those species persist today, albeit in smaller numbers. Others weren’t so lucky.
Take the passenger pigeon.
Ranging from Canada all the way down into Florida, the passenger pigeon had a massive eastern territory. Quite possibly the most successful bird ever, settlers encountered them in numbers that, like the bison herds, are hard to fathom today.
The Smithsonian estimates that their population once accounted for nearly 40% of all the bird life in North America, with nearly 5 billion birds.
“To get your head around just how many passenger pigeons that would mean, consider that there are only about two hundred and sixty million rock pigeons in the world today. You would have to imagine more than eight times the total world population of rock pigeons, all flying at the same time in a connected mass,” according to writer Jonathan Rosen.
Their numbers were so great, in 1810 Alexander Wilson believed that a single mass had 2,230,272,000 birds.
Tragically, these gigantic flocks were exactly what made the passenger pigeon so vulnerable. Hunt clubs across the East would communicate their whereabouts, travel to where they laid, and typically shoot hundreds of thousands of birds in a weekend. By the turn of the 20th century, the species had disappeared.
The squawk of the Carolina parakeet — North America’s only native parrot — also once rung throughout Southeastern forests, as did the bugling of the Eastern elk; the ivory-billed woodpecker was collected and logged out of existence; the heath hen was eaten into extinction; the great auk, a flightless, powerful swimmer was destroyed for fishing bait; the Labrador duck, an Atlantic sea-dweller hasn’t been seen in over a century; and the Eastern cougar, the shepherd of Atlantic forests, was extirpated thanks to a government-sanctioned bounty system.
At sea, the results were similarly devastating. When John Smith explored the waters of Maine and Massachusetts in the 1600s, the ocean — and its cod stocks — seemed limitless. Smith brought home 47,000 fish in a single trip, which set off a fishing frenzy that didn’t end until just a couple decades ago. Although the New England fishery fared better than the Canadian stock, it’s estimated that only 1% of the Atlantic cod population remains. Millions of whales were also slaughtered and butchered. Tens of millions of sea turtles were dispatched, as were the prodigious schools of carnivorous fish that thundered up and down our coastlines.
By the turn of the 20th century, the immense flocks, schools, and herds that captured the imagination of the American public were all but lost. This slaughter was so complete, William Hornaday estimated that 98% of the country’s game birds and quadrupeds were lost in just 50 years. This ecocide finally came to an end with the advent of strong conservation laws, as well as an enlightened — and enraged — public.
In the last chapter of our series, we’ll explore what makes today’s extinction crisis different from the mass slaughter of the past four centuries — and what each of us can do to change things for the better.
 David Wilcove, The Condor’s Shadow, (Anchor Books, Random House, New York) 84–85
 Jonathan Rosen, The Birds, The New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/06/the-birds-4) 2014.
 Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. A Fish Tale — The Last Hunters. (Penguin Group Incorporated: New York City, USA; London, England, UK, 1998) 26–223.
 William T. Hornaday, Wildlife Conservation in Theory and Practice (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1914), 19.