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Wild cows came before bison!

By Barney Nelson, Ph.D.

Although many people would like to see “introduced” cattle removed from the North American ranges and “native” bison restored, that would actually be replacing a native species with an exotic one. Wild cattle roamed the North American continent millions of years before bison migrated across a land bridge–or ice or via canoe or raft–depending on which story is currently in favor. All paleontologists agree, though, that bison are immigrants and did not evolve on this continent.

According to Elaine Anderson, a widely known Pleistocene mammalogist, the shrub ox was one of the first bovids to reach North America (during the Irvingtonian epoch) about two million years ago. They once ranged from Northern California to Mexico and east to Illinois. Bison did not arrive in Alaska until the late Pleistocene (during the Illinoisan epoch) about a quarter of a million years ago.Our continent was in fact once dominated by equids, camelids, proboscideans, and bovids–better known as horses, camels, elephants, and various grazers including cattle. Some fossil bones which were discovered in Burnet Cave in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico and belonging to the extinct shrub oxen, are only 8,000 years old. These fossils are recent enough to indicate that large herds of bison may have even displaced shrub oxen.
European cave paintings depict wild cows, long before they were domesticated. Bison showed up in North America at about the same time as humans and, like them, resembled their Asian ancestors. Shrub oxen, more closely related to modern cows, roamed here a million years earlier. (Illustration by John Bardwell)

Although scientists have long known about various species of ancient cattle which once inhabited the North American continent, they have been mysteriously silent about them in the press. Cambridge anthropologist/archaeologist, E. S. Higgs says the lack of information on cattle is due at least “partly to the fact that their bones have largely been ignored.”

Bison entered North America about the same time humans arrived and were maybe even being driven or followed by them. Chapter 8 of “The Journey of Coronado,” written by Pedro de Casteñeda in 1565, describes some bison killed near today’s Grand Canyon: “Another strange thing was that all the bulls that were killed had their left ears slit, although these were whole when young. The reason for this was a puzzle that could not be guessed.” It doesn’t seem too hard to guess why the ears were slit to those who have snuck up on a sleeping calf, whipped out their pocketknives and carved an ownership mark into the soft little ears.

Although the new people and the new animals survived, their arrival triggered a mass extinction of the large native mammals. In one of his books, nature writer Edward Abbey humorously demands that a Native American drinking buddy tell why his people exterminated all those mastodons, camels, and tree sloths. The Indian shrugs and answers, “We were hungry.”

The jury is still out though on exactly what or who caused the mass extinctions of mammals on this continent. It could have been overhunting and it could have been overgrazing and displacement of the native animals by introduced domestic bison.

Today conservation biologists are calling for a “rewilding” of the North American continent by reintroducing modern versions of extinct animals. A recent article in Wild Earth magazine discusses the way cattle and elephants may actually cooperate in order to improve each other’s range. In Africa, elephants and cattle have been observed trading places: the cattle move into the elephants’ park area to graze and the elephants move out to the cattle pastures to browse. Explains David Western, “With elephants and cattle transforming the habitat in ways inimical to their own survival but beneficial to each other, they create an unstable interplay, advancing and retreating around each other like phantom dancers in a languid ecological minuet playing continuously over decades and centuries.”

Based on Western’s study, the authors of the article suggest reintroducing modern elephants for a North American grazing experiment. However, they favor combining bison and elephants, rather than cattle and elephants, even though bison and elephants never actually coexisted. Bison developed in China (famous for ancient genetic experimentation) and cattle developed in Africa. Amazingly the authors of the article use the argument that even though today’s elephants are not the same exact animals as the extinct versions, they are close relatives and would have similar grazing habits. The same argument should justify modern cattle breeds. However, refusing to listen to the fossil record, or using it only when it benefits their “Cattle Free by 2003” agenda, conservation biologists favor bison.

Although scholars have been ridiculing wild and domestic boundaries as applied to wilderness for several years now, the division between wild and domestic animals and the movement to remove “non-native” grazers from the North American grasslands has gone unchallenged as an imagination-based problem. According to Christian mythology, agriculture began as a curse. When Adam and Eve fell from grace and were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, their punishment was to sweat and till the ground, raising their own food instead of plucking it without effort from the trees. The animals associated with agriculture also took on the sub-conscious baggage of punishment and hard work.

Domestic animals descend through a long history of imagined animal villainy. During the 16th and 17th centuries both the Catholic church and Protestant sects burned animals at the stake as witches, just as they did women. Most victims were domestic animals: horses, cows, pigs and dogs. Wild animals, in contrast, are imagined as innocent, sinless, and living lightly off the land, their lives free and unencumbered by such domestic responsibilities as tending children or practicing sexual restraint. In reality, however, “women’s work” and domestic chores are actually closer to the kind of work that “savage” people, “free” bachelors, and “wild” animals perform daily rather than leading lives of leisure and freedom as imagined by outsiders.

Sometimes the argument also appears to be influenced by gender. Since nature stories, especially animal stories, often operate at a subconscious and psychological level, it is worth considering the reasons why American “wilderness” is usually spoken of as virginal and cattlemen as rapists and denuders. If most Americans were to close their eyes and imagine an elk, a bighorn, or a moose, a horned male, probably skylined, would pop into view. But if domestic cattle or sheep are imagined, the representative animal pictured would be a docile, stupid, unhorned female.

Interestingly, some scientists classify bison and cattle as congeneric because they can readily mate as only closely related sub-species can. The difference between them is one rib: bison have 14 and cows, of course, have only 13! A bison conjures in the imagination a large male bull, but the cow–because she is one rib short–is somehow the cause of all our trouble.

For many years scientists have enjoyed almost an unchallenged, universal acceptance of their research as fact, but “objective” science, like “objective” history, has feet of clay. Like everyone else, scientists have biases which influence their results. When conservation biologists begin their research under the assumption that the “original” North American ecosystem began in 1492 when Columbus “discovered” a new world and that at that time the continent was a virginal “wilderness” rather than heavily managed Indian farm and pasture land, their data are based on an imaginary foundation–an idea ecocritic Frederick Turner calls “scientific creationism.”

I still have faith in science, but not when it is being practiced by those who bend their findings to suit their own power struggles and hidden agendas. Conservation biologists are letting their almost religious biases against cattle destroy the credibility of their work.

Conservation biologists want western rangelands returned to “native” species, yet geologists theorize that the earth is in a constant state of plate tectonic recycling. Each time new land rears its sterile head from under the sea or through volcanic eruption, immigration begins again. Even Charles Darwin raised 82 separate plants, belonging to five distinct species, from a ball of mud taken from a migrating bird’s feathers. Yet the popular media and even agriculturalists blame every “noxious” plant which has “invaded” the North American continent on domestic animals. If one digs far enough back into ancient history, even the elephants, camels, and shrub oxen were immigrants. So, if nothing can ever be “really” native to a place, how can anyone say the “natives” have been replaced? Perhaps a more accurate conclusion would be that minority and majority populations or early and later comers have recently cycled to favor one over another, a process which is in constant flux.

Countering their own belief in the wise process of evolution, some scientists argue that modern ecosystems are evolving toward self-destruction. Quite often their arguments simply contradict one another. Evidently forgetting that modern domestic grazers actually arrived in the desert Southwest during the mid-16th century with the Spanish, biologist David M. Graber observes that due to mid-19th century cattle and sheep grazing “Eurasian annual grasses and some dicots have virtually replaced the native herbaceous species.” He also fails to see his own contradiction when he ends the same paragraph with the sentence, “Nor is there good information on what the native herbaceous layer consisted of, should an opportunity arise to restore it.” In order to preserve the genetic “purity” of one endangered species, they argue that habitat borders must be rigorously patrolled, yet in order to preserve a viable genetic “pool” for another, habitat boundaries need to be enlarged and corridors established. An article in National Parks claims grazing by “non-native” animals, disturbing topsoil with their hooves, is threatening 16 endangered native plant species. Hoof disturbances by “native” animals evidently do not cause trouble in national parks.

In an excellent synthesis paper published in The Journal of Range Management (1993), Utah State University professor Neil E. West summarizes that: “Unfortunately, policy makers have quickly turned what were academic working concepts about biodiversity into packaging buzzwords to fund politically popular programs. The evolving understanding of biodiversity being built by researchers was thus prematurely uncoupled from strong science (Redford and Sanderson 1991). We have land managers trying to implement actions based on fuzzy definitions, loosely worded objectives and inadequate methods of measurement and monitoring because a concerned and impatient public is breathing down their necks.”

Even conservation biologists admit that “[u]nexamined technical questions are legion” (Brussard, Murphy, and Tracy), yet still suggest that “In the face of uncertainty, let the burden of proof be on those who would continue grazing to show how it benefits the native ecosystem” (Noss)–an idea which embraces a guilty until proven innocent philosophy.

Modern cattle are not some manufactured animal off the assembly lines in Detroit as many environmentalists would have us believe. The modern cow is descended from extinct wild ungulates like the African, Asian, and European aurochs (Bos primigenius to Bos primigenius primigenius to Bos taurus primigenius and Bos taurus brachyceros). Scotland’s legendary, long extinct, shaggy wild white cattle (Bos longifrons)–which look amazingly like white bison–were also ancestors, as were “forest bulls” (tauri sylvestres), Scandinavian mountain cattle called “Fjallrus,” and India’s endangered beautiful red Gaur (Bos gaurus). The cow’s family tree includes Caesar’s urus, Indonesia’s Banteng, and the hairy wild yak (Bos grunniens). Even the European and Asian wisent (Bison bonasus), a small light colored buffalo, may have contributed to the modern gene pool. Modern breeds have added blood from Bos indicus (numerous crosses with Zebu and Brahman), Bison bison (Cattalo, Beefalo, or crossed with Angus is “Amerifax,” crossed with Simmental is “Simmalo”). The “American Breed” crosses Zebu, Charolais, Hereford, Shorthorn, and Bison–all of which thoroughly mixes the hollow-horned, cloven-footed, humped, hairy, short- and long-horned wild cattle breeds which readily interbreed like sub-species but which most (though not all) scientists like to classify today into totally different genera.

In Mexico the word “corriente” means native cattle which mostly forage for themselves and have often become browsers rather than grazers. Texas Longhorns are a feral breed descended originally from Spanish cattle first brought into the desert Southwest in the 1500s by Cortez. One of the few major sources of protein which the desert has proven able to produce sustainably–or at least for about 500 years now–is beef. In England, breeders carefully protect an ancient wild “White Park” breed which is horned, shaggy, and white with black points (nose, ears, hoofs, and horn tips). Historically they were a game animal, hunted in private parks in Scotland, Wales and England until the early 1800s. The Highland cattle breed, covered with long shaggy hair, looks very similar to the wild yak. Highlands are ancient cattle mentioned in history as far back as the 1100s. India has over 30 native indicus (humped) breeds, Africa many more.

In fact, prehistoric humans were drawing pictures of cattle on cave walls at the same time and possibly even before they drew the first bison. The famous Lascaux cave drawings in France date back 25,000 years and depict more cattle than any other animal! Bill Kittredge describes one of the drawings as “great bulls painted in red ochre” which reminded him of some “Mexican steers my grandfather imported to Oregon from Sonora in 1945” and which eventually escaped into the Cascade Mountains where some “roamed for years.” Another drawing is called the Falling Cow and another the Great Black Cow, which Kittredge says is “as fine as any work ever done.”

The idea that wild animals do not overgraze but domestic animals do is fantasy, not fact. Wild animals are just as prone to overgraze as domestic. Pioneers said the land, after the passing of a bison herd, looked as though it had been plowed. A review of modern scientific research which has been done on “overgrazing” by wild animals also exposes the idea that domestic grazers are more destructive than wild grazers as pseudo-science. One recent study, published in the Journal of Animal Science, finds that reducing steer numbers in a riparian mountain meadow actually increased grazing and loafing along stream banks (Huber, et al. 1995). I would ask the scientists whether or not increasing animal numbers could eventually cause natural rotation and migration, similar to historic bison movement caused and directed by Indian fires or bison movement out of Yellowstone National Park during periods of starvation.

Another study found that “where grazing intensity is greatest, soils have the highest levels of soil microbial biomass” (Ruess and Seagle 1994). Another found that removing domestic grazing animals reduced soil loss and stream sedimentation (Owens et al. 1996). I would ask if these combined studies point to the idea that grazing animals simply deposit large concentrations of loose biomass along banks which is then more easily washed into the stream. I would ask whether streams carrying sediment from grazing animals are healthier or less healthy than streams without sediment. I would ask whether or not this loose biomass makes a significant contribution to riparian soil health. And I would especially ask whether or not the same results would be obtained with “wild” grazers.

Articles appearing in today’s popular press are quite similar to articles which John Muir was publishing during the turn of the century, although the language has changed a little. Today’s language compares wild “natives” to domestic “invaders” instead of domestic “hoofed locusts” and wild “dainty nibblers.” I would also venture to guess that many urban environmentalists still gain more of their information about grazing from Muir’s writing than from modern science. A study counting the number of times the average working scientist was quoted in later studies by other working scientists found that both Thoreau and Muir were cited over four times a year, frighteningly comparable to the real scientists who are usually cited only 8.2 times or less per year. Continuously in print, Muir’s books are still read and enjoyed by modern nature lovers and quoted faithfully by Sierra Club members and publishers of books and magazines designed to evoke emotion and sway public opinion.

A book called “Our Magnificent Wildlife” even publishes, almost on the same page, both information about extinct, threatened, and endangered wild cow ancestors and a drawing claiming that one acre of African grassland can support 42 tons of “wild” beasts but only seven tons of “domestic” animals. This kind of information is usually used for the purpose of creating new preserves, but worldwide the real motives behind formation of parks and nature preserves are sometimes hidden. Quite often they simply provide an excuse to displace local and working class people, or landowners who cannot be tempted to sell their prime development property. Discouragement and then displacement opens up the land for exploitation or government use.

This displacement seems to cross all racial and economic divisions as well. Anglo ranchers enjoyed only a very brief historical moment in the Southwest. For instance, just a few years after Arizona became a state, government agencies ousted most residents along the border, including cattle, and replaced them with state parks, national monuments, military reservations, national parks, proving grounds, and national recreation areas.

Famous for his anti-government philosophy, nature writer Edward Abbey, in the essay “A Walk in the Desert Hills,” seems to be happy that the Arizona border is free of cow dung, saying, “I give thanks again for the United States Air Force.” However, he is obviously being sarcastic. Perhaps no one better than Abbey knew that the entire U.S./Mexico border area belonged mostly to the government against which he thought true patriots should be willing to defend their country.

In conclusion, in the spirit of the “Wildlands Project”–which favors turning the West into a huge bison reserve where people do not live (because unpeopled land would be more authentic to prehistoric times)–I would like to make a suggestion. I propose that the entire West be turned into a huge wild preserve featuring two of the continent’s extinct native animals: wild cattle and wild horses. Since desert-bred and acclimated cattle would be the closest modern relative to the extinct shrub oxen, I recommend dedicating the land to the grazing of desert cattle. In order to restore the area to as much late Pleistocene accuracy as possible, various human “species” (if animals are classified by color, size, and body shape, perhaps people should be too) will only be allowed to enter the reserve periodically, as visitors, and will not actually set foot on the land. Human footprints will not be allowed. Humans can enter the reserve only if mounted on authentic late Pleistocene animals, such as the horse which actually evolved on this continent and also became extinct when the bison arrived. Now about those camels and elephants...”

Barney Nelson is an interdisciplinary ecocritic who teaches environmental literature and nature writing at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. Her research specialty includes representation of domestic animals in American literature.

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