Time spent as an aviator has afforded me ample opportunity to visit many parts of the western hemisphere, even live in some of them. Being a natural history buff, one overarching question I often ask myself when in a new location is: What did the area look like before settlement? A particular site nags at me to this day. I would treasure a view of the Columbia River before dams tamed the giant roaring beast. Second on the list is right here, the Red River Valley.
I took a peek into our past recently when I read a book titled, "The Nature of Eastern North Dakota: Pre-1880 Historical Ecology" by Drs. Kieth Severson and Carolyn Sieg. Before you go out and buy this book, be forewarned. If you are seeking entertainment or some other form of literary enlightenment, this volume is not for you. The book is dry as dust from a readability standpoint. But it is well researched and it eventually leads the persistent reader to a fairly deep understanding of current thought on the subject.
Severson and Sieg carefully explain the challenges researchers face when piecing together a picture of what was. There is no written record prior to European exploration and glacial scouring has jumbled or erased much data like a bratty kid with an Etch-a-Sketch. Even the journals of early explorers are not without obvious gaps.
It's not until the late 1800s do we get a firm grip on what our area looked like. But it is presumed to have been similar for quite some time. The authors write, "...there is evidence that the climate has remained relatively similar in the last 2,000 years." In terms of vegetation, "...plant species...that were present before Euro-American intervention have been in place...for the last 2,000 to 4,000 years."
Mosquitoes also appear to be a steady if undesirable constant, at least recently. Captain Crossman, the commander at Ft. Ransom in 1867 wrote "the mosquitoes were something terrific. I never saw anything to compare with the mosquitoes of Dakota and northern Minnesota."
The mix of other animals has changed quite a bit though. Many which were common are no longer so. Bison and elk were abundant, gray wolves also. Fishers, otters and martens (enjoying a recent but small resurgence today) were seen regularly. Wolverines were trapped as far south as Grand Forks. Black bears were said to be very common along the Red River. Even pronghorn were frequently noted in the grasslands of our valley.
Other critters, however, have benefited greatly from settlement. Believe it or not white-tailed deer were quite rare, if not absent, in the Red River Valley. In 1887 there was no trace of Eastern cottontails. Skunks too, were not noted often.
Bird life looked different as well. The passenger pigeon - now extinct - was abundant along the Red. Whooping cranes were reported regularly. And ruffed grouse were noted all along the Red River as far south as Fargo in 1872. One interesting case is the prairie chicken. It was absent from the state until the arrival of settlers in the 1880s then flourished for a time. Then there is the ubiquitous house sparrow. First found near Cando in 1894, one observer wrote that by 1910 the bird was an, "unmitigated nuisance, they are everywhere."
So what did the Red River Valley look like? A fairly accurate answer might be huge oceans of tall prairie grasses with ribbons of woods along the rivers, all teeming with wildlife. But it might be a more comprehensive question to substitute the word 'when' in place of 'what.' Because there is no steady state nor has there ever been. Eastern North Dakota has experienced subtropical climates and arctic ones. We've been under oceans at times, a thousand feet of ice at others. We've been covered in coniferous forests instead of prairie grasses. Wooly mammoths and dinosaurs once trod on ground now paced by white-tailed deer. It all depends on when you want to take that snapshot.
Hundreds of years from now I imagine people will wonder what our landscape looks like today because theirs will certainly be different. Change is the only constant. Warren Upham described the Red River Valley in 1890, "Where lately herds of countless buffaloes grazed, wheat fields now extend far as the eye can see." The authors comment, "In less than one decade, the prairie had been forever changed."