Alexander Henry was a Canadian fur trader who traipsed across the Upper Midwest, the Northern Great Plains and the Canadian Prairies in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Luckily for those of us in the 21st century Henry was a serious diarist. No matter where he traveled he kept detailed notes on where he was and what he saw. Some of his observations are contained in a book about his travels that recounts his time near Pembina, North Dakota in 1803.
In his journals Henry described how the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota appeared more than 200 years ago. Henry told stories about fishermen capturing sturgeon in the Red River that weighed more than 100 pounds. Fish that size were captured regularly and in large numbers. He described the river at that time being “crystal clear” and its channel was more than one-quarter mile wide. No sturgeon remain today in the Red River. Its channel in many places is less than 100 feet wide, and given the amount of agricultural runoff in its watershed, few if any people are alive today who can remember when the last time was that the water was clear – crystal or otherwise.
It was a spring morning in 1803 and Henry was camped along the east face of the Pembina Hills, an outlier of eastern deciduous forest that was completely surrounded by what Henry called “an endless sea of grass” (virgin native prairie). Not long after sunrise that day Henry heard a rumbling sound to the south. Looking out from his campsite he saw the leading edge of a massive herd of American bison moving west toward the rich grasslands of North Dakota. Henry mentioned the enormity of the herd and wondered how many animals were spread out before him. He remained at his lookout throughout the morning and as he did the herd of bison continued their movement west. By late afternoon, as the sun was beginning to set, the vast herd continued to pass and it was still doing so as darkness overtook the landscape.
There is no way to estimate how many bison passed by Henry that day. Given the year of the observation and the location where the herd was seen, and the fact that the herd passed continuously for more than twelve hours, I imagine that Henry saw tens of thousands of bison and probably many more. Uncountable examples exist in the scientific and popular literature describing the former abundance of American bison on the North American Great Plains. However those numbers are no more. At one time shooters would line the edge of open doors on railroad cars and shoot all the bison they encountered along the railroad tracks and they did so just to kill them. Other shooters decimated vast numbers of bison solely to cut out their tongues while still others shot bison for their hides leaving their carcasses to rot in the blistering prairie sun.
In 1700 the continental population of American bison was estimated at between twenty five and thirty million individuals. In 1889 there were 1,091 animals left. Their demise, just like the destruction of vast flocks of passenger pigeons, is one of the most frustrating realities for a wildlife biologist to accept. Reading the history of this demise it becomes readily apparent that much of it can be attributed to the United States government and their desire to “tame” the Native Americans who lived on the Great Plains. An important part of the Native American diet was bison. Therefore to rein in the Native Americans it was US government policy at the time to kill off as many bison as possible to hamstring the Native Americans and force them into hunger and also force them to abandon their ancestral lands. It angers me to this day that I was robbed of the opportunity to witness what Alexander Henry saw that day near Pembina, North Dakota and what those who followed Henry saw on other parts of the prairies while my own government was trying to subdue the Native Americans who did nothing more wrong than breathe. I am profoundly annoyed that people with no conservation ethic deprived me of ever being able to see what the shooters saw as they rode in train cars across the Nebraska prairie. I will never see any of that in North America.
One hundred seventy eight years after Alexander Henry witnessed the spectacular movement of American bison from his perch on the edge of the Pembina Hills the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came up with a proposal to build a damn on the Pembina River that flows through the hills. The river originates in the Canadian province of Manitoba and flows southeast into the northernmost reaches of northeastern North Dakota. Its course continues east until it joins the Red River of the North and there, ostensibly, it returns to Canada as part of the Red River.
The damn was billed as being essential for flood control and recreation – the two most overused phrases in the damn building history of the Corps. Certainly the river flooded on occasion – that is what rivers do. And certainly the river caused damage in its floodplain – that’s why wise people don’t build in flood plains. However the Corps was undeterred by reason and fact. The Pembina River still flowed freely and by god they were just the bunch of engineers to subdue it.
One of the aspects of recreation that the Corps failed to recognize was land based wildlife observation and hunting. The forest of the Pembina Hills was an outlier of the eastern deciduous forest in Minnesota and Manitoba. Breeding birds found in the Pembina Hills were unlike almost any other place in the prairie state of North Dakota. Here we found nesting white-throated sparrows, Philadelphia vireo, American woodcock and other forest birds with an eastern affinity making the river and its valley a much sought out place for birdwatching.
The Corps also failed to factor in the value of the forest and the river for hunting and especially big game hunting. At that time there was a sizeable population of moose in the forest and the North Dakota Fish and Game Department maintained a limited hunting season for those forest behemoths each fall. The Corps in its infinite wisdom failed to take into account the uniqueness of a prairie state having a population of moose in its limited forests. All the Corps saw was a free-flowing river that should have a damn on it. They sought out Congressional approval (always a snap to receive if it involves building something egregious) and planning began for the Pembina Damn.
The Ecological Services office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck, North Dakota was in desperate need of scientific data on the biological richness of the Pembina Hills. The more irrefutable data they possessed the better chance they had to pound some sense and reason into the typically thick skulls of the Corps. To that end the Bismarck office contracted with the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown to conduct an analysis of breeding bird populations in the Pembina Hills. Once data collection was completed the data were to be analyzed and a paper summarizing the results was to be presented to the Bismarck office.
In 1981 I had the most-enviable position of being the nongame bird research biologist at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. It was a dream come true for a farm boy from the north woods of Wisconsin to work with world-renowned research biologists (and one world-renowned statistician) and because of my interests I was asked to conduct the research. With me in the field that year was Jon Andrew, a recent graduate of the Master’s Degree program at Appalachian State University in western Maryland. Jon and I traveled to the Pembina Hills in late May where we established many sampling plots on which we would later map out the locations of territories maintained by territorial male birds. After sampling birds a minimum of 8 different times on each sample plot we would have enough information (according to the already published literature) to determine the boundaries of every territory on the plots and from that information calculate an estimated breeding bird population for the entire area to be inundated and destroyed by the proposed damn.
Because it was the summer solstice and the longest day of the year, on June 21, 1981, we conducted early evening censuses on each of the sample plots. Our objective was to get a better handle on crepuscular singing birds like thrushes and woodcock. We stayed late that evening, until well past 11:00 p.m. counting birds and then listening for owls before returning to the nearest town to crash for a few hours.
June 22, 1981 dawned clear and brisk along the Pembina River and Jon and I were out in the field by 5:00 a.m. I dropped Jon off along the road near two sample plots that he was to census and I drove on to another site that I was to cover.
All the while we were conducting our research we saw abundant sign of moose in the forest. Droppings were everywhere as were moose tracks in the moist soils. Occasionally we found trees that had been trashed the fall before by male moose as they tried to scrape the velvet from their antlers. However despite all the sign we had not seen a single moose.
On my sample plot that morning I remember finding least flycatchers and a singing male Philadelphia vireo and American redstarts were everywhere in the woods. Near the center of the sample plot was a very large basswood tree that had died and fallen to the ground. As I had done on all previous censuses I hopped up on the log and stood there for a couple of minutes listening and watching and recording what I saw. That morning was just like all the other mornings I had been on this plot and like all the other mornings when I came onto the fallen basswood tree I jumped up on it at about the middle of its length and prepared to stand and listen.
However on the morning of June 22, 1981, things were a little different on that sample plot because unknown to me at the time a young bull moose was sleeping right on the other side of the log. The young male didn’t know I was there until I jumped up on the log. I had no idea that the moose was there until the entire sky in front of me had turned a hairy brown color and the air suddenly smelled like moose droppings because less than 2 feet from me was the very recently startled awake moose!
Moose are very near sighted and have a well-developed sense of smell. I’m not sure which of the senses kicked in for the moose in the nanosecond between when I made my appearance on the log and when I began screaming at the top of my lungs out of fear. All I remember in the split second after startling the moose out of its slumber was me yelling and then hearing the thundering hooves of a moose as it ran toward the river while I ran as fast as I could up the hill away from the river. It was the first, last, and only moose we ever observed in the Pembina Hills and if anyone needed proof that they were there we could now provide it.
Finishing our research a few weeks later we analyzed the data, wrote a paper for the Ecological Services office in Bismarck and then adapted it for publication as a scientific paper and then let the Bismarck office do its magic fighting the Corps. As luck would have it the biological uniqueness of the Pembina Hills was so overwhelmingly obvious that even the damn builders at the Corps of Engineers realized that it was not good policy to destroy such beauty and diversity with another in an endless string of useless damns. About a year after we submitted our paper for publication the Corps of Engineers announced that they were abandoning their plans to damn the Pembina River. In public they told everyone that they did so for economic reasons. In reality they did it because of the biological values Jon Andrew and I discovered during the summer of 1981.
Now 33 years later, a full third of a century after the fact, the Pembina River still flows through those wooded hills from which Alexander Henry counted that massive herd of American bison more than 200 years ago. It has been 33 years also since I last stepped foot in those beautiful forests but I know from Google Earth that they are still there. The basswood tree that the young moose used as a night roost 33 years ago last night is probably long gone and returned to the earth but the moose are still there and some of them are likely the offspring of the male I scared so badly in a beautiful aspen forest 33 years ago this morning.