From an Orion essay by J. B. MacKinnon
The wild plants and animals that used to feed us are akin to keystone species, which give structure to entire ecological communities. Wild foods were the tethers that tied us to whole habitats. Forget the taste of acorns and it becomes reasonable to fragment the unbroken oak forests that, besides people, fed tens of millions of passenger pigeons. Fish the shad into obscurity and there is less of a case to be made against damming the rivers of the Eastern Seaboard, or using them as dumping grounds for industrial pollution. Stop gathering the edible flower bulbs of the Rocky Mountains, and abandon the clearest argument against grazing those meadows to nubs. To stand in for such distinct foods of place, there will be, wherever you may roam, broiler chickens from Georgia, Texas beef, Idaho’s famous potatoes.
Despite the nostalgic tone, I think MacKinnon has a strong argument about the loss from changing ecosystems to support settler food habits.
The most dramatic example is surely the Great Plains, where tens of millions of plains bison have been replaced by 45 million cattle—a straight swap of buffalo steaks for beef burgers. Yet so much more had to change as well. Ninety percent of the tallgrass and shortgrass prairies, fueled by sunshine and watered by rainfall, was ultimately replaced by hard-grazed cattle range and farm-raised crops—often for livestock feed—that require fifty gallons of oil per acre and the irrigation of more than 20 million acres of land. With the vanishing of the bison began the slow fade of an estimated 100 million wallows that the pawing, rolling animals eroded into the grasslands, creating ephemeral water pools in the wet seasons and dust basins in the dry. As the wallows declined, so did the spadefoot and Great Plains toads that gathered to breed in them; so did the grasslands song of the western chorus frog; so did birds like the McCown’s longspur and mountain plover, the latter so fond of prairie balds that they’re now known to nest, with predictable risk, on farmers’ bare fields.
Without bison calves and carcasses to feed on, the plains grizzly faded not only from the landscape but also from memory. Gone, too, is the strange reciprocal relationship between bison and prairie dogs, with the bison mowing down the grass to make way for prairie dog colonies, which in turn improve the quality of forage for bison. The two animals’ fates were joined: wild bison now roam just 1 percent of their former range; prairie dogs number 2 percent of their former population. The buffalo bird, which once fed on insects spooked into the air by bison herds, simply came up for a name change. Today, it’s the cowbird.