In his legendary book Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America, Dan Flores spins an incredible, historically-based yarn about North America’s amazing wildlife resource from inception until now. Today we discuss unimaginably abundant fur, feather and flesh commodities the likes of which humanity had never before–nor since–ever witnessed, how and why that resource was so quickly depleted as compared to preceding centuries, and how the same capitalistic ideals applied then have now become driving forces for rewilding America. It’s a truly incredible story you absolutely don’t want to miss.

Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America by Dan Flores.

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Writing Wild New World

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere where today I’m outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the terminus of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range, overlooking a juniper pinion mountain valley of epic proportion. What an amazing story I have for you today. Today’s story, as told by today’s guest, Dan Flores, is going to be an epic story of animals and people in America.  Dan is the author of particularly Coyote America, the American Serengeti and the epic Wild New World.  Dan, how are you today? Glad to meet you. Dan, how are you today? Glad to meet you.

Dan Flores: Ramsey, I appreciate you coming out and hanging out with me for a couple of days. This is really fun.

Ramsey Russell: It’s been amazing. Like I told you last night, I don’t read a lot, I don’t have time without distraction, too. But I picked up Wild New World, taken it on a bucket list trip to the middle of the Amazon basin, which is still one of those really wild places and maybe it’ll always be wild because of where it’s geographically located, how it is. And there was no distraction. There was no telephone signal, no text messages, no Internet, nothing but fishing a few times a day and stars and waves lapping up on the boat at night and I just could not put the book down. It was amazing. Congratulations and you wrote this book, as I understand, during the pandemic. I’m impressed.

Dan Flores: Yeah, this was my pandemic vacation.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Dan Flores: Writing Wild New World.

Ramsey Russell: I don’t know where to start. But your book starts 66 million years in the past. That’s where the whole story of North American wildlife and human interaction begins, isn’t it?

Dan Flores: Well, I think it is. I mean, I purposefully began the story then with what’s known as the Chicxulub impact, which most of us know about, of course, as the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs, which landed 66 million years ago on one of the northern reaches of the Yucatan Peninsula. And just to the north of that, of course, was at the time, the 2 pieces of the continent that would one day make up North America. At the time, there was a great Central Seaway separating eastern America and western America. But that impact sets in motion, as you just said, the great story of North America’s acquisition of its birds, animals, reptiles, the creatures that, when humans finally get here, sometime between 23,000 and 13,000 years ago, made up one of the great bestiaries of planet Earth. And it had been millions of years forming, formed not only by continental evolution, but also by migration from species from other parts of the world. Every time there was a land bridge connecting North America to Asia, for example, creatures like mastodons and mammoths and eventually bison, would cross the land bridge and enter North America. And so what I was trying to do with this book – and this is a kind of history, by the way, that’s often referred to as big history. A lot of people aren’t especially familiar with it because the history they remember or have read or heard about in high school or college is usually the history of wars and of politics and of who’s the president at a particular time, this is a completely different kind of history. This is the history of the big picture relationship between people and the animals of a particular part of the planet. So in order to tell it properly, I felt like I had to start it way back in time. And this is a book that, in 10 chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue, goes from 66 million years ago across 400 pages down to a year ago last spring. I mean, last few things that I talked about were happening in the year 2022.

A Story of Early Humans & Wildlife

Ramsey Russell: And the story is about the wildlife. It’s about the place, it’s about the environment through time, but it’s also shaped by people. It’s all hand in hand and interconnected like cogs of wheel.

Dan Flores: It is. Because what I tried to do with this story was because this is how this great story makes sense to me is to treat human beings as another species of animal that, just as mammoths, just as bison had done, would eventually be migrants to the Americas. I mean we start our journey around the world, out of Africa, of course and we end up basically colonizing the entire planet. And the Americas, North and South America, are the last places on earth that we find, the last big continents, at least that we find. And it takes us a very long time to do so. And by the time we get here, what we’ve been doing for a long time in our evolution, we’ve become very good at. And that is being upright human predators of the big animals of the world that we emerged in.

Ramsey Russell: It’s so interesting how genetic code, there’s genetics deeply ingrained in us. The need or want to hunt, to experience nature. I think it goes way back to the birth of humanity. But I was thinking this morning on the drive over, it seemed also to be a need to travel, to venture, to find that new place. I mean, something led them here. Why were they just aimlessly walking across that land bridge except to find a wealth of wildlife?

Dan Flores: Yeah, that’s the argument I make, is that what they’re looking for? And what leads them first out of Africa into the Middle East and then into Europe and Asia and then across this gigantic, the largest landmass on earth is Eurasia, across that landmass into Siberia, where they were stymied for 25,000 or so years by these gigantic ice sheets in Alaska that prevented them from actually entering North America. But what led them, in my view, on this journey, was the search for animals that had no prior experience with humans. Because one of the things I think they recognized very early on and by they, I mean our ancestors, was that animals didn’t automatically look at humans. Other animals didn’t see humans as predators until they learned that humans could be predators. Their response to the presence of humans was, this is just another interesting looking species that’s not any particular threat. I mean, biologists refer to this as biological first contact.

Ramsey Russell: First contact.

Dan Flores: And there are all kinds of great examples of it around the world, even into our own time. And certainly in the 19th century. I mean, I write several instances about how this worked, but one of the ones that kind of amazed me happened in the year 1820, when one of the American exploring expeditions that’s been sent to the Rocky Mountains is returning. And they describe their party going eastward across the Great Plains through herds of animals, of bison, of pronghorns, of wild horses and packs of wolves, that basically just barely moved to the side to make room for these humans, these explorers, to continue on their journey. And so that was, I think, a lot of what led people who were specialist hunters during these migrations around the world is they’re looking for these populations of animals that don’t have any clue. So they’re also looking for places where they don’t see evidence that other humans have been there before, where they’re not seeing fire pits, they’re not seeing rock cairns stacked up, they’re not seeing footprints or smoke signals in the sky in front of them. And it’s something, I think, that still compels us. We still love this notion, I certainly do, of going into the mountains some beautiful fall morning and realizing, wow, I’m about to climb Santa Fe Baldy and there’s nobody in front of me.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Dan Flores: I’m going to be the first person on the mountain this morning. And that’s another one of those very old genetic memories, I think, that we still preserve from this experience that we’ve had over the last 3 million years.

Ramsey Russell: I think in some of us, the desire burns more than other to find those places where maybe no human being has ever set foot before or it’s certainly been a very long time. The whole theory of first contact reminds me – I had a friend return recently from Antarctica. He went down to film the king penguins and he said it was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. You come off the boat, you walk on shore. And he said, they asked that you please stay 6ft or more away from them, but that the bird just – They’re fearless. They don’t care. The people hadn’t come through and hunted them or predated them or anything else as compared to somewhere along the way, the great auk, a flightless bird that used to migrate by walking. And they say some of the earlier pioneers, I guess the Vikings would just, wouldn’t even store food. They just open up the boat and scurry them on top there, just chicken ready to be had.

Dan Flores: Yeah. I got an account of when I described the extinction of the great auk, which was, of course, a lot of people don’t realize we had a penguin in the northern hemisphere, just as you have penguins in the southern hemisphere and the great auk was our northern hemisphere penguin. But I’ve got a description, an account very much like what you described from the Vikings, except it’s from the late 1600s. It’s a bunch of British sailors who say that you could sail up within reach of these promontories out in the North Atlantic, where great auks would nest and gather. And all you had to do, basically, was to put a board from the rock out to your boat and have somebody just get out on the rock and walk around. And the auks would get on the plank and walk into your boat.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Dan Flores: And as these guys described it. So God put these birds here for –

Ramsey Russell: Like manna from heaven.

Dan Flores: Yeah. For hungry sailors. And here they come, it’s just these poor creatures, as they said, will just walk right into the boat to be killed.

The Wildlife of Early North America

And it’s a story of, as I mentioned a minute ago, of continental evolution.

Ramsey Russell: What might North America have looked like when the first humans arrived? The meteors hit, the dinosaurs are gone. Somewhere along the way, I heard 90% of life beings may have been wiped out with that meteor impact, but things enough was around that it began to evolve again. We’ve got this virtual Garden of Eden sitting in North America and the first forms of humanity come into. What kind of world did they come into? What did they find here in North America?

Dan Flores: Well, it’s a world that’s many millions of years in the making. And the latest version of it, the one that the humans who actually arrive here find, is probably and this is at least the way I present it in the book, it’s probably best understood by going to a place like La Brea Tar Pits in LA, because La Brea Tar Pits preserves the life of the late Pleistocene, which is the version of North America that the first humans saw. But there were earlier versions, because this was a very long story. And, I mean, I only devote a single chapter to trying to describe how North America acquires its bestiary. And it’s a story of, as I mentioned a minute ago, of continental evolution. And as you and I were talking last night over dinner, one of the very interesting things about continental evolution here is that North America spawned animals that we don’t associate, really, with North American origins these days. And the 2 that really sort of bring people up short are camels and horses. I mean, those 2 families of creatures come from this post Chicxulub impact North America. Horses beginning to evolve here 56 million years ago and camels about 45 million years ago. And so while we think of camels and horses today as being creatures that are either from the deserts of the Middle East or North Africa, in the case of camels are – with horses, we think of, okay, there are zebras in Africa. There’s the Przewalski wild horses in Mongolia and in Asia. And otherwise, the horses that around the world, what Europeans brought them here, right. Well, the reason Europeans had horses to bring to return to North America is because over those millions of years, that horses had emerged. They had crossed the land bridges and they had gone the opposite direction than mammoths and bison had done. They had gone into Asia, into Africa, where they became wild horses, wild donkeys, zebras, quaggas and the horses of Europe that eventually got returned to North America. Because one of the fascinating and kind of very mysterious aspects of the Pleistocene in North America is that we lose our representatives of those creatures. We still have horses as late as 7000, 8000 years ago. And we still have the most recent North American camels, which were called yesterday’s camels, were here and across almost all of the president of the United States about 9000 or 10,000 years ago. But they all disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene. And particularly the disappearance of those 2 is kind of a mystery. We don’t actually know what happened to them. We have a good idea what probably happened to some of these other species. But with the horses and camels, it’s a little hard to quite figure it out.

Ramsey Russell: Maybe they were just – I mean, is it possible they were just chasing new grass, new grazing lands, just following like very nomadically, just following their noses?

Dan Flores: Well, I mean, they certainly did that in crossing the land bridges, but that didn’t translate when they left North America and went to Asia. It was just some populations of them spread across the land bridge and of course, others were still back here in North America.

Ramsey Russell: That was one of the most aha moments of the whole book to me was the horses, because I was a little biased towards all these feral horses out in the west as being an invasive species. But the fact of the matter is, once they came back, they thrived.

Dan Flores: Well, and the reason they thrive is because they were pre adapted. I mean, they had evolved here. So when Europeans reintroduced them to North America 500 years ago, I mean, they did spectacularly well. They essentially reoccupied the Great Plains, for instance and sort of reconstituted the Pleistocene of the Great Plains. And the reason they could do it is because they were all set to respond to exactly that terrain and exactly those ecologies. I mean, the only thing that they really lacked and this is why horses have become such an issue, of course, because I talk a lot about horses in this book. It’s a story that I track all the way up to the present by the time you get to the end of the book. But it has to do with the fact that we return the horses. But the predators that had pursued horses during the Pleistocene aren’t returned and so we don’t have the full ecology. And that’s kind of in a nutshell the story of why we’re having such an issue with wild horses in the west is we don’t have the numbers of predators. The wolves, the lions, the North American cheetahs, all those creatures that once pursued and kept horses numbers in check aren’t with us.

The Evolution of Hunting Techniques

I thought you made a great point in the book about – because humanity shows up, they’ve got all these critters.

Ramsey Russell: And what happened to a lot of those animals? Why did they disappear? I thought you made a great point in the book about – because humanity shows up, they’ve got all these critters. Humanity evolved its hunting technique, evolved to prey on these animals. It was just a real back and forth relationship. They killed them out.

Dan Flores: Well, they certainly – So before I even say what I was about to say, let me just preface it by saying that this has been a scientific debate. What happened to the American animals of the Pleistocene for a very long time? In other words, the question is, why don’t we have elephants anymore? Why don’t we have sabertoothed cats anymore? Why are these great charismatic creatures of the Pleistocene gone? And so what’s really happened in the scientific world, in paleontology and archaeology, is that while various suggestions and proposals and hypotheses for what happened to these animals have been proposed over time. None of them, except for the argument that humans, as a brand new predator, were somehow in the mix and responsible. None of the other arguments has really worked very well. I mean, from time to time, somebody will toss out some new argument, maybe disease epidemics took them out. And within, as happens in science, you put a hypothesis out there and see, run it up the flagpole and see if it’s going to fly in the wind. And almost all these arguments, except for the one about humans as these brand new predators, have failed over time. And what we’re left with then, to me, it’s a little bit like the arguments that people have made that surely we’re not responsible for climate change. Surely something else did it. And as I was working on the chapter, which I call Clovisia the Beautiful, that was about this –

Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.

Dan Flores: Yeah. Referring to, of course, this first great continental culture by the people known as the Clovis people. As I was working on this, I was grappling with these various suggestions and hypotheses and recognizing that this is a lot like the way we’re approaching climate change. We’re trying desperately to find anything out there that will get us off the hook for having done this ourselves. And so far, we haven’t been able to come up with anything that really seems to test or stand the test of logic. And so what we’re left with I mean and I think I added a couple of new elements to the debate. What I mostly did was sort of summarize what is emerging as kind of a common and universal, really opinion about what happened is that humans were brand new predators. They were confronting animals that in many cases had never seen humans before and respond not as frightened prey, but that basically stand there and end up allowing themselves to be taken down. But what also is happening is that at the same time, humans are in the process in doing this and very likely, probably killing off the mammoths. For example, the Columbian mammoths and woolly mammoths probably were outright killed by humans, who by this time, as I was saying to you last night, by the way, when humans got here, we represented 35,000 to 40,000 generations of hunting expertise. And I mean, we were really good at it. I tell a story in that chapter, in fact, about the mammoth hunt, a particular mammoth hunt that seems to have taken place southeast of where Tucson is now located in southern Arizona along Santa Cruz river about 13,000 years ago. There are 3 archaeological sites that indicate that a band of human hunters, of Clovis hunters, surrounded a herd of mammoths. That herd contained a bull, a cow and 14 calves or adolescents. These Clovis hunters killed every one of the calves and adolescents, each of which had a single point in their bodies. Killed with one point. The bull was found – The archaeologists who work these sites found the bull about 2 miles away with 2 Clovis points in his body and they found the cow with 8 points in her body. She had clearly fought trying to defend these calves, but I mean that kind of expertise and success is one of the things that enabled these early human hunters to do the kind of damage they did on North American animal populations. Now, one of the other things that seems to have happened and this is most probably best demonstrated by what happened to the mammoths on Wrangel Island out in the Bering Sea. Population of animals, as the sea rose, got, ended up isolated on Wrangel Island. So no human hunters got to them. The climate was changing, didn’t seem to have any impact on them whatsoever. I mean, elephants, after all, do really well in warm climates the way they do in Africa and Asia. But they ultimately, about 4000 years ago, became extinct through what biologists are now referring to as genomic meltdown. And what they think happened with these Wrangel Island mammoths is that the population was small enough and it was not sufficiently genetically diverse enough for them over time, as they interbred and interbred and interbred to sustain the ability to reproduce. And some of us think that this kind of thing may have happened on the mainland, where populations of animals were pushed into these kind of refuges and separated from one another so that they couldn’t interbreed. So, I mean, that’s a phenomenon, of course, we worry about today.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Dan Flores: And that may have been one of the things that was going on during the Pleistocene in North America as well.

Ramsey Russell: What happened in North America between Clovisia the Beautiful and European colonist?

Dan Flores: The coming of Europeans? Yeah, I devote a full chapter to that. Obviously, one would have to do so because there’s a 10,000 year period. I mean, the Pleistocene is usually dated as ending at about 10,000 years ago and what we call the Holocene or what a lot of people are now referring to as the Anthropocene.

Ramsey Russell: Anthropocene?

A New Way of Relating to Animals

Dan Flores: Yeah. The Anthropocene, governed by human effects, begins at that point. And in North America, it extends down to 500 years ago, when old worlders in the form of Europeans, Africans and others, began arriving in North America. And so it’s obviously a very intriguing kind of period to try to wrap your head around, because we had just emerged from a series of extinctions where we had lost a lot of the charismatic big animals in North America, the human population is still here, but it’s going to have to adapt to a world that doesn’t have mammoths and sabertoothed cats and short faced bears and on and on in it. And so what you get is a really, to me, really intriguing 10,000 year period where humans isolated from what’s happening in the old world, in Eurasia, where all these same processes have been underway, except they’re happening faster in Eurasia because humans have been there longer. And so in Eurasia, by about 10,000 years ago, the animal populations have dropped sufficiently to the point where all the big animals are gone in Europe, just as they are in America. And humans at the end of the Pleistocene start domesticating animals and plants. It’s the beginning of what we sometimes refer to as the Neolithic Revolution that features the husbandry, the domestication of sheep and goats and cattle and hogs in terms of animals, and also the domestication of wheat and barley and all the crops that we associate with kind of an agricultural world. So that happens, like, 10,000 years ago in Europe and Asia and the Middle East. In North America, because humans get here much later, the human population pressures on the animals of North America is considerably less. And so the Neolithic Revolution doesn’t really occur until about 5000 years ago. So there’s a much briefer time period in America when agriculture, in particular, the domestication of crops, is a feature of the North American world. And one of the interesting things that happens with the domestication of animals in North America is people hardly do domesticate anything. They domesticate wild turkeys. They domesticate a couple of ducks. The muskovy duck is a duck that ends up being domesticated. They, of course, have dogs that they have brought with them. The Clovis people had brought dogs to North America. So we’ve got dogs and turkeys and some groups have ducks. But there are very few animal domestications. People don’t domesticate bighorn sheep. They don’t domesticate pronghorns. And the result of those factors, a much later domestication event in America than in the old world. Plus, relatively few, if any, domesticated animals produces kind of a completely different story. Where in North America, what you have, what I argue in this chapter and I call it Ravens and Coyote’s America, named after 2 of the great deities of this 10,000 year period. What you have is, to me, a continuation of the old, ancient kind of religious notions about humans and other animals being close kin to one another. So that in North America, what we get is a succession of religions that essentially kind of posit that humans and other animals are all part of the same family of creatures on the planet. And we are so close to one another, in fact, that we can actually migrate from one group to the other. There are all kinds of native stories about people who marry a bison, cow or wolf that marries a woman or a bear and a human woman who become man and wife. And those kinds of stories about that sort of kinship are often told and reenacted in ceremonies. I mean, we know this because by the time Europeans and Americans were here, they were describing these ceremonies that native people would go through. When native people would worry, for example, that maybe the bison had gotten scarce or had disappeared, they would do ceremonies to basically confirm, reaffirm the kinship relationship between humans and other animals. So that kind of cosmological worldview of they and we are the same. And because we’re the same, they deserve the same respect that we get that we give to other humans we meet. That sets up a completely different kind of way of relating to animals than people from the old world bring. Because they’ve gone through this kind of herding, domesticating revolution, where if you’re herding sheep and goats and cows, all predators are your enemies and they’ve gone through a religious revolution that has taught them. And as you remember from last night, I was describing this story that I tell in the book. That was my first introduction to the old world position about human exceptionalism. The religion that most of western Europe had absorbed by the time Europeans come to North America has taught them that humans are exceptional. They are the only creatures made in the image of a deity. And all other creatures, they’re not kin to us. They’re just put on earth by the deity for our use and our purposes. I mean, the Judeo Christian tradition in the book of Genesis, for example, it just lays out the story, “into your hand are they delivered” Genesis says, giving Europeans the idea when they come to America and find all these animals that native people have managed to preserve for 10,000 years, that man into our hand aren’t they delivered and what a bonanza we’re confronting now. I will say that there are a couple of other things that certainly play a role in native people managing to preserve the biological diversity of North America for 10,000 years. One is that by the time Europeans arrive, I mean, north of Mexico, there are fewer than 5 million people living in North America. And that’s been very much by design, because these long term hunters and gatherers, I mean, it’s been mitigated somewhat by the arrival of agriculture, which has increased the population over the previous thousand years or so. But these hunters and gatherers realized that what you need to make a hunting and gathering lifestyle work is you need space, you need open habitats and landscapes for wild creatures to thrive. And so they had deliberately kept their populations low. It’s not a perfect story. In the course of my research, I discovered there was an extinction, at least one extinction, during that 10,000 year period. There was a flightless sea duck on the Pacific coast that ended up going extinct about 2,200 years ago. And it went extinct because it was hunted to extinction. But that’s a – I mean, flightless birds around the world have been pretty easy prey for humans. Every time we’ve arrived in a place like New Zealand or Australia or in Hawaii, the flightless birds are the first things to go.

Ramsey Russell: Low hanging fruit.

Setting the Stage for an Explosion in Wildlife Population  

But what they’re often describing is this ecological release that these animals have gone through as a result of the diminishment of the human population.

Dan Flores: They’re low hanging fruit, they’re easy to get. They have few predators. They don’t recognize humans as predators. And so there was a flightless bird in North America that became extinct during that 10,000 year period. But by and large, native people preserve all this marvelous biological diversity to greet Europeans when they arrive 500 years ago.

Ramsey Russell: Native America, as we think of it, you just numbered it to 5 million, but at one time it was much bigger. It was when the Spanish came through and introduced smallpox into that population.

Dan Flores: Yeah. So that 5 million figure between somewhere between 4 and 5 was the pre European. Once Europeans arrive and as the Spaniards are coming up from Mexico, for example, and exploring the southwest and the Gulf coast, and I tell the story particularly of the Cabeza de Vaca expedition, which introduces, we don’t know exactly what the disease is, but everywhere these shipwrecked Spaniards end up, the native populations are dying really rapidly. So that by the time the Brits and the French began arriving, 75 or 80 years later, Cabeza de Vaca is on the Gulf coast between 1519 and 1536. And the Brits, for example, don’t start landing on those offshore islands from the Carolinas and Virginia until the 1580s. By the time they arrive, one of the things that these early British explorers relayed is, with some astonishment, they say, is every village, every native village they go into within days after they’ve gone there, almost everybody in the village is sick. And they’re dying by the droves. And this particular account that I follow and quote in the book, I mean, this guy says, and it’s not true of the villages that we didn’t visit, but anytime we went to a village, we got a report within 2 or 3 days that everybody there was sick and people were dying. So the result of all of that, this is called in American colonial history, The Great Dying. So you’re starting out with a population of 5 million, nearly 5 million people north of Mexico. But from Mexico, from the Rio Grande river southward into Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and down into South America, most of those populations, unlike North America, had been agricultural for 3,000 or 4,000 years. Agriculture had only been in North America for a couple of thousand years and in some places only a thousand. But farther south, agriculture, which is where agriculture in the Americas had originated, they had been agricultural for twice that long and their populations were much larger. So what we think was actually happening with Great Dying is that there were as many as 56 to 58 million people in the Americas, only 5 million in North America, but some 50 to 55 million from Mexico southward. And the result of the arrival of old world diseases against which these people had no immunity whatsoever. They had never been exposed to smallpox, to influenzas of various kinds, to cholera, to common colds, because they hadn’t been a part of the old Eurasian population that had domesticated animals and gotten these diseases from the animals they domesticated. These native people are going to die at rates we think of somewhere above 80%. So we think in The Great Dying in North America, the population that was close to 5 million when the very first Europeans land within 100 years is down to about 900,000. It’s been reduced by more than 80%. And as you remember from reading the book, I know we’ve talked about this aspect, you were kind of stunned by this. But one of the effects of that is that a sudden, dramatic decrease in the native population of the Americas has the effect of producing an ecological release among wild animals, so that when Europeans get here, as the native population is dying off, the wildlife population is exploding. And that’s what produces this epic idea we often have of America as this Garden of Eden, virgin America, people used to refer to it. That’s just teeming with animals of all kinds. And all these early European descriptions are just marvelous to read. But what they’re often describing is this ecological release that these animals have gone through as a result of the diminishment of the human population.

Ramsey Russell: And now the stage is set.

Dan Flores: Yeah, indeed.

Ramsey Russell: There’s a great abundance, unprecedented abundance of animals and birds and wildlife throughout the North American continent along comes the Nina Pinta and along comes a European colonist. And they’ve got a European worldview that in Genesis, you say the beast will be delivered into their hand. The beast don’t have a soul. They have dominion because they’re built in a godlike. They’re also armed with a wealth of nations that self interest is the prime directive of human nature and economy based on freedom to be selfish and natural self interest creates natural economy. And moreover, they’re fleeing a part of Europe where nobility on the wildlife.

Dan Flores: Yeah, that’s right.

Wildlife as a Raw Commodity

So it’s like animals in America just become – It’s like digging gold out of the ground or cutting down trees. They just exist as commodities for us to exploit.

Ramsey Russell: And by gosh, they are free and they land. And it’s just the Garden of Eden is before.

Dan Flores: Yes, the Garden of Eden. I mean, I often call on people to understand the position that a lot of these European colonists take when they get to North America. Coming out of the feudal system of Europe where the nobility had owned all the animals and the king’s forest and all, is that, that’s what the Robin Hood stories that we’ve all absorbed in the movies we’ve all watched, that’s what that’s about Robin Hood is a poacher. He’s a deer poacher in the king’s forest, which is why sheriff of Nottingham is after him all the time. And what happens is that all these people who had formerly, the only way they could really participate in hunting animals in Europe was to be poachers, are now in a continent where the wildlife seems to be extraordinarily abundant and the native population has been reduced to a fraction of what it had once been. Some of the native people, of course, try to assert the deer are just like for us, just like you think about your cattle. The deer belong to us. But the European position was these animals belong to anybody who can take a –

Ramsey Russell: A raw commodity, that wildlife represented them a raw commodity. Here is money to be made and a lot of it, and indeed, generational wealth that exists today was created off the back of those animals. It’s incredible.

Dan Flores: Yeah. As you know, I tell the story in several instances of wolf poisoners, of plume hunters, of people who were hunting animals for the market, beaver trappers and so forth, who basically rose into the middle class by killing American animals for the market. I mean, it was an avenue for people who arrived with almost nothing to actually become successful and members of the American middle class by killing these animals for the market. One of the stories I tell in the book and I told it because I’ve often thought of this as sort of the origin of my wanting to write a book like this, relates to the first and oldest memory I have as a kid. And it was my introduction to the European worldview about the relationship between humans and animals. And what had happened is I was a 4 year old who had my first little animal companion, which was a few weeks old little yellow chicken. And like a 4 year old, not very imaginative. So the only name I could come up with was Chicky. And so Chicky was my first little animal companion. And Chicky and I would go through these wonderful dashes through my mother’s house, through mom and dad’s legs, underneath the sewing machine, under the dining table, behind the couch and I would chase Chicky all day long. Except one day I miscalculated and like a clumsy little kid, I stepped on my little chicken and I killed it. And so the reason I have this memory is because of the emotional content of what happened subsequently. I’ve killed my first little animal companion. I’ve done it myself. First time I’ve ever confronted something like death and mortality. And so my mom and I go back into the yard, into the backyard and we bury Chicky. And we’re standing there over Chicky’s grave and I’ve put dirt on Chicky’s grave and I’m, of course, sobbing away and I turn to my mother and I ask mother this question and what I say to her is, so, mom, I get to have Chicky again in heaven, don’t I? And my mother, who is a good Southern Methodist, but who also kind of was famous throughout her life for telling people the unpainted version of things. I guess even if you were 4 years old, turns to me and says, why? No honey you won’t get to see Chicky in heaven. Chicky is an animal. You’re a human being. You have an everlasting and immortal soul. So when you die, you get to go to heaven and you get to be with Jesus. But Chicky is just an animal. Animals don’t have souls when animals die, they’re just dead. So, no, I’m afraid you’re not going to get to see Chicky again, which, of course, when you’re 4 years old or maybe at any age, that’s not the message you want to hear. But it was a pretty hard and graphic introduction to the European perspective about other creatures. They don’t really count. We can do whatever we wish with them because we’re the only creatures on earth that matter. They are here for our purposes. And if we’ve got an economic system like capitalism that is intrigued by converting beavers and sea otters and white-tailed deer and buffalo into the commodities of the global market economy, then have at it. So it’s like animals in America just become – It’s like digging gold out of the ground or cutting down trees. They just exist as commodities for us to exploit.

Ramsey Russell: And how were they exploited? You told some great stories and there was a lot of cause effect, that as these Europeans interacted with the wildlife, exploiting it for personal gain and in turn, how the wildlife and the system began to break down in several instances. One of the most interesting and I’ve heard this talked about on other podcasts, were the beavers. Those guys were so efficient at running up those rivers and trapping it out that a lot of this country out here became a desert because those beavers were gone. That’s crazy.

Dan Flores: Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean, I told the story of this particular group of brigades from the Hudson’s Bay company. I mean and they were coming down into what is now Montana, Idaho and Utah in the 1820s. And what they were trying to do was that country was in dispute between Great Britain and the United States and so these Hudson’s Bay trappers had the directive of trapping what they called a fur desert to keep the Americans from pushing westward towards Oregon and towards the Pacific coast. So these trapping brigades would come through places like Montana and Idaho and Utah in the 1820s. And I mean, I looked at some of the journals of them. And so tried to offer a kind of a day to day account of how they would did it. How they did it. They would arrive at a stream in the bitter root mountains in western Montana, for example, and in an afternoon they would do their trap sets and the next morning they would usually put out about 100 traps. They would usually catch 70 beavers in those traps. The next morning, they would set them once again for an afternoon session and catch another 30 to 40 beavers in the afternoon and conclude that at that point, we’ve basically wiped out, especially when they do it in the spring. We’ve wiped out every beaver in this drainage. And so you pack up and move to the next drainage, the next canyon down the range and you do the same thing again. And they estimated, these guys who were actually doing the trapping estimated that in 8 to 9 years of these brigades, to create a fur desert, they removed 35,000 beavers and drained 6000 beaver ponds in the northern Rocky Mountain west. And of course, what that does, this happened all over North America. It happened in places like Connecticut and Pennsylvania and Upstate New York and everywhere the beaver populations were significant and had transformed the landscape and made North America kind of a much more aqueous kind of place with standing water everywhere. Is it completely transformed the ecology of North America. And of course, that has cascade effects. When you start draining beaver streams or beaver ponds and suddenly turning these streams that have been dammed up for 70 or 80 miles into free flowing creeks. I mean, it completely destroys the ecology that had been in place for thousands of years.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, forever.

Dan Flores: And nobody knows anything about ecology at the time. So there’s an argument that, okay, you can kind of cut these people a break. They don’t really understand exactly what they’re doing. But those of us down the timeline, looking back, have to realize that this kind of process, it happened with sea otters, which were keeping kelp forests healthy. It happened with wolves, where, I mean, wolves had been in North America. This is another animal that evolved here, the canids of the world. Wolves and coyotes had been here for 5 million years. And we arrive out of Europe and with our old herding mentality of the first thing you have to do is to get rid of all the predators. I mean, particularly for people like the Brits. The Brits hadn’t had any wolves in the United Kingdom since the 1400.

Ramsey Russell: Little Red Robin Hood story had been told forever. We can’t have any wolves out here.

Understanding our World 

And one of the reasons I wrote Wild New World is because it seems to me this is a story in order to understand the world we’re living in and the world we’ve created, this is a story we need to know. 

Dan Flores: Yeah, we can’t have wolves. The first environmental act that Europeans pass in North America is a bounty on wolves. So they immediately start trying to dismantle these ecologies that have been in place for millions of years. They don’t know what they’re doing, but the effects cascade through the system. I mean as we were talking last night, Ramsey, a lot of people know some basic American history. I mean, you know something about the president, something about the wars, maybe something about the settlement of the west. Most people know that at one time there were an awful lot of buffalo and then at some point later on, there were almost none. But that’s often about all people know about this wildlife story. And one of the reasons I wrote Wild New World is because it seems to me this is a story in order to understand the world we’re living in and the world we’ve created, this is a story we need to know. I don’t talk about wars or politics or hardly ever mention a president. Teddy Roosevelt obviously comes in for treatment. Thomas Jefferson does. But this is a different kind of history and a different kind of story than most people are going to think of when they think of American history. And it’s a story that we don’t really understand. And I mean, to me, it’s something really powerful to know about.

Ramsey Russell: The bison story is pretty interesting and I think you address this pretty well in your book. A lot of the – I was led to believe, for example, and we start talking about a lot of the economy of furs as it related to Canada. There was a little bit of difference in the way Canada managed it versus America. And somebody figured out that, again, it’s about the business, we could indebt Native America in this first system and get them to see a lot of their land later. And there seems to be or I’ve heard there’s some parallelity reading your book, between the bison were extirpated to get rid of Native America, starve them out.

Dan Flores: Well, that’s been an argument that we’ve made for a hundred years or so. I actually don’t endorse that particular argument and I go to some lengths to try to place the bison story within the context of everything else that’s happening. For example, at the same time, we’re wiping out the bison. We’re also wiping out passenger pigeons. We’re wiping out Carolina parakeets. We’ve already almost destroyed the beaver population in the country. We’ve almost destroyed the sea otter population. All those other animals were not wiped out in order to force native people onto reservations. This all happened, including wiping out the bison, because in the 19th century, we had a completely unregulated capitalist system and the federal government sort of learning the lesson that you don’t want to be like King George the III and England, that was trying to place laws and governance over wildlife. The famous proclamation of 1763, which was one of the things that had led to the American revolution, had actually tried to stop American colonists from going beyond the Appalachian Allegheny crest in order to preserve the wildlife beyond that. And that, of course, had ended up leading a lot of people to want to revolt against the king of England. So the United States government, recognizing that the federal government probably shouldn’t really get involved in these issues, just essentially stood back and let all this happen as part of this is how capitalism works. Capitalism is governed by higher laws, the laws of supply and demand. And so we don’t have any responsibility to try to stop it. So we didn’t try to stop the slaughter of passenger pigeons. That was a bird, by the way. It’s kind of one of the things that blows my mind about a story like this. I means a lot of people today, they remember there was some bird called a passenger pigeon and some people may remember that it was sort of a giant size mourning dove that at one time flew in gigantic flocks across America. We think, in fact, that it was –

Ramsey Russell: One flock estimated at 3.6 billion birds.

Dan Flores: Billion birds. That’s right. We think that it was not only the most numerous single bird species in North America, but was probably at its height, the most numerous single bird species on the planet. Probably a peak population of close to 10 billion passenger pigeons. Those birds had been in North America for 15 million years. They could not survive 400 years of us with our unbridled capitalist approach to wildlife. I mean, they had been here through all the Pleistocene, all the Clovis people, all the 10,000 years that followed, with humans present. And yet they can’t last 400 years after we get here. And almost the same thing happens, because sea otters are found in the oceans and can secret themselves away in little isolated pockets, a few of them survive an attempt to basically destroy them in order to produce pelts for the market economy. I mean, white tailed deer, you know how white tailed deer, we think when Europeans got here, there were 63 million white tailed deer in Latin America. By 1900, there weren’t even 20,000 white tailed deer left.

Ramsey Russell: Well, by the revolutionary war, they had started to regulate deer seasons around that part of the world.

Dan Flores: States had tried to do so. Yeah, states and as the story goes about this, the states and territories had tried to do the regulation that the federal government was unwilling to do, but they didn’t ever hire game wardens or anything or spend any money on it. And so while the laws were on the books, nobody ever gets prosecuted for any of this. So it’s just this kind of free for all process. And the way I basically tell the bison story and because we’ve gone for 100 years telling the story that the federal government deliberately killed bison in order to put Indians on reservations, I go to some length to talk about this and also to trace down how this story got started. You know how it got started? There’s a previous buffalo hunter who had killed thousands of buffalo, who wrote a memoir in 1905, his name was John Cook. And in his memoir and it’s at a time, this is during Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation period, when a lot of people are really regretting the demise of so many of these animals. Passenger pigeons are about to disappear forever. Sea otters are almost gone. Beavers are hard to find. The buffalo is down from 30 million down to fewer than 1,000. And so a lot of people are really up in arms about this. This buffalo hunter writes a memoir where he says, you guys you people shouldn’t be blaming us. You should be giving us medals of commendation because we were civilizing America. And not only were we civilizing America and deserve medals for doing this, but no less than Philip Sheridan. When the state of Texas was about to pass a law to stop buffalo hunting in Texas, Philip Sheridan goes down to Austin and delivers an impassioned speech and says, you should give those buffalo hunters medals of commendation because they’ve done more to tame the frontier and put Indians on reservations and bring cattle and cowboys to the west than anybody else has done. Well, when I track that story down to, this is where the notion comes from that the federal government was responsible for arranging the destruction of the buffalo. One of the things I logically did was to check to see if Philip Sheridan had ever gone to Austin to make such a presentation. And had the state of Texas ever tried to pass a law to prevent the destruction of buffalo in Texas. And the reason I was suspicious is because at the federal level, there were people who, in the same time period, the 1870s, did try to pass federal laws to stop the slaughter not just of buffalo, but of elk, pronghorns, mule deer, bighorn sheep. And the Texas delegation had always been opposed to it. So I was a little suspicious that Texas would be doing this. And what I discovered was that not only did Texas not try to pass such a law, Philip Sheridan had never gone to Austin to make such a presentation. And in fact, Philip Sheridan had actually sent a telegram to Washington in 1878, telling the War Department that he wanted to see the destruction of buffalo by wide hide hunters stopped. So the way I approached the buffalo story in Wild New World is it’s part of this same kind of thing that’s going on with all the other species. You don’t need a government trying to make it happen. All you need is for the government to just step back and allow human nature and the market system to do its work. And the market not only takes out buffalo, it takes out virtually everything else out there. I mean, we got pronghorns, which had probably been as numerous as 15 million animals, down to 7,000. Just by stepping back and letting the market do its work.

A Capitalistic Approach to a Wildlife Economy

So from the very beginning of the European arrival, native people are trading pelts. 

Ramsey Russell: How was Native America similar to the European mindset of capitalism, but different. For example, when I think of buffaloes, on the one hand, buffalo Bill Cody went out and piled them up like cordwood for the tongue and the hump and the fur. But on the other hand, a tribe would run the entire herd off a jump. They didn’t want one coming back out to go tell all his buddies or anything. They’d run them all off more than they could possibly eat. So I see some similarities. So how did Native America participate in this new economy? How were they similar? How were they different, do you think?

Dan Flores: Well, and this is a story that may surprise some people. I don’t know, but it’s a very common story in the history of, say, the American west or of the fur trade. I mean, native people from the very beginning of the arrival of Europeans are going to participate in this wildlife economy. And they do so because what they are offered to participate is a transformative technology. Native people in North America had been isolated from the development of the bronze revolution, the iron revolution, the production of steel, metalwares, in terms of agricultural implements, in terms of firearms, in terms of hose, rakes, knives, swords. So what native people – what indigenous people all over the world who had been isolated from what had happened on the great Eurasian landmass, where all these cultures are fairly close to one another and where the invention of gunpowder in China will very soon get to Europe. So that’s why I mean Jared Diamond wrote a great book 25 years ago called Guns, Germs, and Steel, about why Europeans have this advantage. And the advantage comes from being on this giant landmass where everybody is connected by trade routes, whereas in the Americas, people are isolated by the oceans from the kind of technological developments that are going on in the old world. So when Europeans arrive with all these metal goods, I mean, these things are completely transformative to native people. And so in order to participate in an economy that allows them to acquire metal, they are willing to go after the one items or the one group of items that the Europeans want, which are usually the pelts of wild creatures. So from the very beginning of the European arrival, native people are trading pelts. And so I go through a lot of this story and I also use a coyote story that I’ve told before to try to explain how this worked. And it’s kind of a famous coyote story from Sioux people, where coyote comes to a village one day and he sees a very beautiful chief’s daughter. And as chief’s daughters are inclined to do, she doesn’t pay slightest bit of attention to him. So, coyote, in this story that the Sioux speaking peoples tell, coyote begins to think pretty hard how he might impress her. And he realizes that there are these new people who have landed way to the east on the shores of the big ocean and they have all kinds of fancy things that nobody out in this part of the world has ever seen. So coyote magically goes eastward and he returns with these very common trade goods. And as the coyote story goes, coyote sets up a teepee right beside the chief’s teepee, where this young woman is living. And she has to listen to him all night long, making all these noises and sounds. And the next morning, curious as to what in the world had been going on, she goes over and raises the flap and says, what in the world were you doing all night? And coyote walks out and produces this beautiful blanket, something she has never seen before. And he says, oh, I was just making this during the night. And so this beautiful young woman says, so, what would you like to have for that blanket? I mean, I’m really drawn to it. I would really love to have it myself. And coyote says, oh, not much. How about you let me kiss you on the cheek? And she consents and he gives her the blanket. And so the story goes that the next night, he sets up another racket. And when she comes over to inquire what in the world he had been doing the second night, he produces a metal pot and says, this thing can be heated up. It holds heat. It never cracks. You can drop it on the ground. It doesn’t break like pottery does. And she says, well, wow, what would you – I mean, I’d love to have this. What do you want for this? And coyote says, nothing. I mean, how about you let me feel one of your breasts? And so she says okay, I mean, that seems like an equitable trade. And so the third night comes and these stories, of course, always go 3 times. And coyote comes out the next morning, and he’s got this mirror and he hands it to her. And she looks at herself and she’s able to see herself in a kind of detail she has never seen before. And so she says to him, what do you want for this? I really would love to have this. And coyote says, I don’t know. How about – why don’t you lift up your dress and let me just have a look? And she says, so that’s all I have to do. Just lift it. Nothing else? He says, yeah, just lift it. Just let me have a look. And so she does. She lifts her dress. He hands her to the mirror. And when she lowers her dress, coyote says to her, well, I really appreciate that. It’s too bad the way you’re made. You’re made upside down. I guess there’s no big issue to it, but it’s just kind of too bad. And she says, what do you mean, upside down? He says, well, nobody has worked on you in order to make it right side up. And it’s no big deal. So coyote goes back into his teepee and the girl goes to one of her girlfriends. And she tells her girlfriend what coyote has said. And he said, between my legs, I’m upside down. And she says, so what to the girlfriend, what do you think I ought to do? And the girlfriend says, if I were you, I would go over to coyote’s teepee tonight and see if he can’t do a night’s work and make everything right. So that’s the story.

Ramsey Russell: Coyote was a smart, sly fella.

Dan Flores: He’s a sly fellow. He knows how to get a beautiful chief’s daughter. But what the bigger import of the story is, of course, is to demonstrate as a story that native people told themselves. Why they’re engaging in a trade of animal parts for the technology that the whites are bringing. This is why you do it. You do it for the same reasons that people want beautiful automobiles, our beautiful homes, our beautiful clothes. Humans are governed, to a certain extent by status and you don’t want to be left behind. And so if something new and wonderful is available, what do I have to give in order to have it? It’s a very human kind of tale and it sets up what becomes 3 centuries of native people being caught up in the global market economy themselves and trapping beavers, killing buffalo, killing I mean, in the south, so many white tailed deer for the leather trade, killed by groups like the Cherokees and the Choctaws that some of those groups actually, before the removal period, were already moving west to try to find new populations of animals.

Ramsey Russell: Speaking of the deep south, somewhere along the book, it was a race to exterminate wildlife with a prize at the end. 10 million tons of fish, 121,000 deer skins. The fur economy – One report from Louisiana, I don’t know, 200,000 beaver pelts, 127,000 raccoon pelts, 16.5 thousand black bears.

Dan Flores: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: That’s incredible.

Dan Flores: Yeah. And this is one of the stories I tell because this is where I grew up in Louisiana. And when I was growing up there in the 1960s. I mean as far as I knew and I was certainly out in the woods a lot and talking to a lot of biologists, there were almost no black bears at all in the state at that time. Barely were deer. Deer were being reintroduced and recovering some and deer, of course, can recover pretty quickly, but there were virtually no bears then. There were no wild turkeys. And so I told the story in the book about these parishes where I grew up and I’d found this historical account by an Indian agent who described a native family. He didn’t designate which tribe it was, but a native family. In the year 1804 had come to the agency and that family that year came to the agency to trade the skins of 400 white tailed deer. And the oil, the rendered oil and the pelts of 118 black bears. So that was what the market economy and the market economy obviously, had converted a lot of Europeans into, people who were killing wildlife for the market, but it was even having that kind of effect on native people who – this is the economy we’re in. This is how you survive in it. You’re good at what you do. And so they are essentially kind of just drawn in almost inextricably to participating in a market economy that is undermining this biological diversity that their ancestors had preserved for 10,000 years.

Ramsey Russell: Were all of this ongoing decimation strictly hunting or there was bound to been some habitat loss, too. Like, I was wondering about the ivory billed woodpecker. He wasn’t being hunted, was he?

___Decline of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers: Loss of Old Growth Forests

Ivory bill specialized in grubs that were associated with freshly killed old growth timber.

Dan Flores: No, ivory bills weren’t being hunted. And ivory bills, I mean, you’re exactly correct. It was essentially habitat lost. Ivory bills were very specially evolved to a pretty narrow niche. What they did was to roam the woodlands of the deep south looking for natural disasters, because ivory bill specialized in grubs that were associated with freshly killed old growth timber. And so everywhere a hurricane had hit, everywhere there had been a tornado, some natural disaster flood that had killed oak trees, for example, pin oaks or something, ivory bills would flock to those locations because they were going after a particular kind of grub that was associated with freshly killed old growth. And so what really did ivory bills in was when, after the civil war, the logging industry, having exploited most of the trees of New England, Upstate New York, the Midwest, now began to move into the south. And, of course, first went after the pine forest in the south, long leaf and short leaf pines to start with, then eventually began focusing on the old growth hardwood timber along the river bottoms and river valleys. And when they began, when the timber industry began doing that and clearing away those trees, that began destroying the habitat for ivory bills. So the ivory bill story, I mean, I, of course, track it through to the present because Fish & Wildlife Service just declared ivory bills extinct about 16 months ago. But we had a really wonderful opportunity to have preserved them, I mean, fairly close to our own time. Because in the 1930s, when ornithologists already thought that ivory bills were perhaps extinct, a population of 13 pairs was found by a group of Cornell biologists in a tract along the Mississippi River in Louisiana known as the Singer Tract. And it was called the singer track. It’s in northeastern Louisiana. It’s called the Singer Tract because it was owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. And so Cornell sent a young biologist, a young ornithologist, into the Singer Tract and he spent 4 years doing the only modern natural history anybody has ever gotten to do on ivory bill woodpeckers and wrote a marvelous book about them. But what made this a tragic story was that the Singer Sewing Machine Company decided to sell the logging rights to this stand of old growth trees where these ivory bills were found, to a Chicago logging company. And starting in 1939 and over the next 3 years, this company came in and logged down all those trees with that last remnant population of ivory bills. So even though we’ve looked for ivory bills a lot since then, there has been no certain confirmation of ivory bill population since that Singer Tract population from the early 1940s.

Ramsey Russell: I wonder how much that logging contract was for. It couldn’t have been much.

Dan Flores: Probably wasn’t much. By this time, this is 1940s. I mean this is only 75, 80 years ago. There are people all over the country who are up in arms over this. And yet, once again, economy prevails. Making money prevails over preserving a species that had been in America for 3 million years and is one of our iconic creatures. America was known at the time, all over the world for harboring a candidate for the largest woodpecker on the planet. And here we, for some piddling amount of money, go in and destroy this last habitat. And as I said, I mean, the Fish & Wildlife Service finally in 2022, decided, despite all our looking since then and of course, there were a couple of moments when we thought we had found ivory bills. It looks like those birds are actually extinct.

Ramsey Russell: Very quickly after the colonials hit boom. In the grand scheme of things, in a blink of an eye, it was over, it was gone, it was depleted. And I’m thinking of a quote you told me. I read it in your book also this morning, Henry David Thoreau, how he summed it.

Dan Flores: Yeah, Thoreau. And I use a phrase in that passage that Thoreau wrote in 1856 in his journal as the title of one of the chapters, to know an entire heaven and an entire earth. I mean, Thoreau is sitting in Massachusetts in the 1850s and he’s been reading these early accounts about what these first settlers in Massachusetts had seen and their description of all the wildlife abundance. Not only the abundance, but the diversity of creatures. And Thoreau is realizing only 200 years later, I’m not seeing most of these animals. I don’t see moose anymore. I don’t see mountain lions anymore. I don’t see whooping cranes anymore. I don’t see great ox anymore. I mean, he just goes through this list.

Ramsey Russell: Prairie chickens.

Dan Flores: Prairie chickens, all these creatures that only 200 years before had been there and he’s not getting to see. And he sits down and as Thoreau is able to do, he comes up with these kind of stunning metaphors, because he says, it’s as if I went to a concert to hear a symphony and realized there are no percussion instruments, there are no strings, there are no horns. All these grand instruments to make the complete symphony are gone from the work I’m listening to. And then he says, it’s like looking up at the stars at night and realizing that some demigod has come before you and plucked all the best constellations out of the sky so that you don’t get to see them. And so what Thoreau basically is saying is, to me, for people who know this story that I’m telling in Wild New World or who learn it by reading the book, what you’re realizing is that we’re not getting to see what Thoreau calls an entire heaven and an entire earth. He says, I am, it turns out, that citizen whom I pity, I’m not getting to see the full complement of the earth’s magic and wonders, because selfish predecessors have come along before me and robbed me of some of the wondrous things that otherwise I would be getting to see. And that becomes kind of a theme in the book. And I return to it in the epilogue after talking about – and I get to the end of the book, of course, and it’s not a book that’s a downer completely, because, of course, for a lot of the way I’m talking about the naturalists who are discovering all these wonderful creatures in America that no one had ever known about before, the John James Audubon’s of the world, the Mark Kate’s Beast, the Alexander Wilsons, the William Bartram’s. And I’m also talking about, beginning in the 20th century, the ecologists like Aldo Leopold.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Dan Flores: For example, who began to realize that by following this old world prescription of just walking in with no science to back it up, but just this idea that in order to create a civilized country modeled on Europe, you have to wipe out all the big wild creatures in it. Leopold and the ecologist in the 20th century began to realize that America actually has a chance to do something different than what the old world did. We’ve got this grand public land system that Teddy Roosevelt established. We’ve got habitat for all these creatures, for grizzly bears and wolves. And what we need to recognize is that it’s entirely possible for us to preserve these grand ecologies that are so ancient on this continent that predate our arrival by millions of years and create Thoreau’s entire heaven and entire earth.

 A Conscientious Conservation Model

Ramsey Russell: And when on a timeline, would you put that collective, conscientious conservation model hitting the road here in the United States?

Dan Flores: Well, I think –

Ramsey Russell: Would it have been as late as the 60s, 50s?

Dan Flores: Yeah, I basically argue that Leopold launches it with Sand County Almanac, because that becomes kind of a bible for a lot of the people in the ecology movement of the, who set up the Endangered Species Act, and the Endangered Species Act is our Hail Mary. I mean, this is the thing that gives me hope about all this. We realized finally 50 years ago and the Endangered Species Act, by the way, this is the 50th anniversary of it this year. We realized in 1973, that we could stop what had been happening in America for so long and not only stop it, but reverse it and start recovering species like bald eagles and peregrine falcons and California condors and grey wolves. And that moment, to me, gives me hope that we can confront the problems we’re facing now in the 21st century. Climate change, a new wave of extinctions. And we can act to do something about it because, I mean, the Endangered Species Act passed 482 to 12 in both houses of Congress. That thing passed at a time when saving the world was not political.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right words.

Dan Flores: Everybody wanted to save the world. So, yeah, I think and this is kind of the way the book ends. It ends on the last hundred pages or so, are really optimistic because it’s the story of how we finally start coming to our senses and start trying to preserve this grand continent that we managed to acquire and are now responsible for.

Ramsey Russell: You look at the whole landscape from beginning to end, from then to now. The first guys coming over to North America, the beautiful Clovesiums and we’ve gone from subsistence to free market capitalism at its finest, to sport. And the sport hunt started around the 18, about the same time Henry David Thoreau coined the stars and the earth. And I’m thinking of a story in the book that was just, I’m shaking my head. I mean, this is this guy, Sir St. George Gore.

Dan Flores: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Was killing so many critters. The Indians put a bounty on him. They’re fixed to go scalp that guy.

Dan Flores: Yeah. The Lakota’s and the Northern Cheyenne’s went after him. Yeah. He was one of – I tell the story of several of these. They were Europeans going on safari in western North America. And where they were going was the Great Plains, which is where all the great animal populations were. Gore spends an enormous amount of money in the 1850s coming to America to go on this grand 2 year safari. And he has something like 60 riding horses, more than 100 hunting dogs. He hires guides from the ranks of the mountain men and goes into what is essentially eastern Wyoming, the Powder River country and begins this completely indefensible kind of onslaught against the animals of the region. The guy manages to kill more than 4,000 buffalo and more than 500 grizzly bears. I mean, he keeps account of animals like that of elk and pronghorns and bighorn sheep. He actually completes a kind of a tabulation of all his kills. Smaller animals like coyotes, for example, he doesn’t even bother with. He does count the wolves that he kills, but he engages in such a blood sport, while, meanwhile reading Shakespeare around the fire at night to the assembled mountain men and guides that the native people, not only, they first complain to the Indian agents of the area and then they finally approach the guy himself and basically tell him that, okay, we want you to, first of all, stop this slaughter and secondly, we want you to surrender all your firearms and your clothing to us. And so at least one of the accounts of how this expedition ends is that Gore and most of the people that he had brought with him are walking barefoot and naked out of the Black Hills and a friendly tribe, I think they’re Mandans, come up on them and rescue them and take them down the Missouri river to St. Louis. But that’s not the only time that happens. I mean, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Russia in the 1870s comes over and does a grand safari and has a 300 piece band that serenades people at night around the campfire. So, there are several of them that I describe in the book that, I mean, just like Africa was a destination for safari hunters, so was western North America.

Ramsey Russell: In the same way that sport hunting still persists, we’ve gone from market hunting to sport hunting and we’re still very much a capitalistic society. Free market capitalism worldwide. And I would even argue, Dan, that hunting, the greatest value of hunting as conservation, is the capitalism, the commodity value, the recreational interest. In the same way we’ve built a billion dollar industry around pro sports for our recreational interest. I still think that sport hunting is like that. And you know what it reminds me of – Daddy Bush. George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, man. I mean, ultra conservative. Comes on the scene, run for president on a green platform.

Dan Flores: Yeah.

A Solution to Losing the American Serengeti

And so what American Prairie started trying to do about 20 or 25 years ago and they’ve gotten very successful at it, is to try to correct that historical error by using market capitalism to create a solution to the loss of an American Serengeti. 

Ramsey Russell: And you’re thinking, what? But his deal was no, capitalism can fix a lot of these problems. The story I shared with you was carbon sequestration that is sold. So if a factory is putting out a whole lot of carbon, let’s say, above the EPA limit, he can buy these credits off the exchange and offset it. Well, at some point in time, the price of those credits are going to get so high, he’s just going to redo it and lower the smokestack down to putting out EPA terms, right. That’s a solution. But you told a really great story about another form of a capitalist illusion. Explain the American Serengeti.

Dan Flores: American Prairie?

Ramsey Russell: American Prairie.

Dan Flores: Yeah, American Prairie up in Montana. Yeah, that’s the best one. I mean, it’s not the only one there, a couple of others that are operating in the west. But American Prairie, to me, is probably the most exciting project going on in the west these days to try to correct this historical error we made, where we essentially destroyed the wildlife of the American Serengeti, the American Great Plains, where the bison and the pronghorns and bighorn sheep and elk, this kind of analog to the Serengeti of Africa we had on the American Great Plains. And instead of doing the way, the colonial countries of Great Britain, Kenya, Tanzania, of course, became independent in the 1950s. And they set up these grand game parks that have drawn tourists from all over the world to see elephants and lions and so forth. We did something very different here in the United States. We turned our American Serengeti over to private interest to become farms and ranches, and so we lost all the wildlife of that region. What wildlife survived? Grizzlies and bison ended up relocating into the mountain west. And so what American Prairie started trying to do about 20 or 25 years ago and they’ve gotten very successful at it, is to try to correct that historical error by using market capitalism to create a solution to the loss of an American Serengeti. And their focus is on the Plains country along the Missouri river in central Montana, where there presently is a Missouri Breaks National Monument along the river. And there’s the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge just downstream from the Missouri Breaks National Monument. So there is along the wild and scenic Missouri river of this stretch, a big aggregation of public lands. And what American Prairie has been doing for the last quarter century as ranches in that region have come up for sale. They have been buying those ranches. Once they acquire them, they take the fences down so they can reintroduce bison, elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep. Ultimately, their goal is once grizzly bears and wolves find this place, they’re going to colonize it naturally. And what they’re hoping ultimately to create, I mean, it may take a century to do it, is a wildlife park or preserve on the Great Plains that’s twice the size of Yellowstone that incorporates the existing public lands with these private ranch lands that they are acquiring and from which they’re removing the fences in order to give us back, at least in one small part of the American Great Plains, something of this grand American Serengeti we once had. And so it’s a vision that – and I obviously spent some time talking about it in wild new world and going to dinner with the guy who basically came up with the brainstorm for this and sort of picking his brain about what – his name is Sean Gerrity. What gave Sean the idea for American Prairie and what its prospects are and it’s a way, as we sort of led into this discussion to begin with, of using market forces to accomplish a great conservation program. In other words, not calling on the federal government to do this, not calling on a state to do this, but just calling on the market to help fashion something that would really be a grand addition to the America of the future.

Hunters of Animals

And what I realized as a result of my experience with that coyote in the Red River Valley was that while this is part of our heritage as human beings, to hunt and sometimes to kill animals, it has to be done for a really good reason.

Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. I want to ask you this question. You grew up around Shreveport, Louisiana. A little boy, like a lot of us in the deep south, hunting squirrels, hunting rabbits, hunting ducks, you told me. And just hunting. And I know when you were in Montana, you remember those skill sets, how to go out and put deer in the freezer, good meat eating deer. But I asked you a question, and I’m not putting you on the spot, but you told a beautiful story last night. I think I’d like to end on this note, but do you identify as a hunter?

Dan Flores: Well, I don’t identify as a hunter anymore. I mean, you’re right. I grew up doing this. And to be sure, when I lived in Montana and built my little ranch in the Sapphire mountains, 3 different times at about 3 year intervals, I shot a little fork horn buck to put in my freezer. Still remembering how to do it from my childhood. But I stopped hunting in my 20s. And I think the story you’re probably referring to is one that I tell in my book Coyote America. And I told it there because I wanted to be completely honest with my readers about, I’m not some urban environmentalist who’s been a champion of protecting animals or being an anti-hunter or anything from the time of my birth. I come from different origins, sort of more like Aldo Leopold kind of origins, but in my early 20s, I probably was only 20 or 21 years old. Coyotes were colonizing Louisiana. I mean, one of the stories I tell in that book is how and why coyotes moved out of the west and began to populate the rest of the country. They’re in every state except for Hawaii now. And so, yeah, they got to their last continental state, Delaware, in 2011. And so, I happened to be on the scene as a kid in my teens, in the very beginning of my 20s, when coyotes were coming into Louisiana. And I was really fascinated by that. And I think what drove me to do this was I sort of wanted to possess the animal. And what I did was I went out one beautiful fall morning into the Red River Valley near home with a deer rifle that I owned and had hunted deer with, and positioned myself in a spot where I could look out across a really open grassland with the cottonwood canopy of the Red River, half a mile or so away. And sitting there with binoculars, I spotted a coyote. And it was a morning when a dew had fallen. And so the grass, this foot high grass that this coyote was trotting through a couple of hundred yards from me was just laden with dew. And through the binoculars and then later through the rifle scope, one of the things I saw was this coyote stopping, as coyotes do. She had spotted me and she stopped broadside and looked directly at me as I wrote it in Coyote America. It was almost like she was posing some ancient question, the ancient question, which I didn’t really elaborate on exactly what it was, but to me, what the ancient question was is, do you mean me harm? And she stood there looking at me and I was looking through the rifle scope and she flicked her tail. And when she did, this cascade of dew droplets went over her back and she was backlit by the sun coming up over the Red River Valley. And I mean, these things were just shimmering in the air and falling onto her back. And that was the thing I saw at the moment that I squeezed the trigger. And when I did so, she yelped. I heard her yelp very plainly and she went down in the grass and I slowly put the rifle down. And when I did, it was as if the whole world around me came into focus. And what had only a few seconds before been this gloriously romantic scene, a coyote in open grasslands. I mean, it was something that, to me, evoked primeval America. Except now, as everything began to come into focus, what I saw was I was at the edge of a grassland that was covered in cow dung everywhere, there were discarded pop bottles and beer cans within feet of where I was sitting in the grass. And as I was registering that, I suddenly began to hear a propane truck in the hills along the river valley, just a half a mile or so away, grinding its gears, going up a hill. And everything that had suddenly, that had seemed, a few seconds before, romantic and primeval and marvelous and magical. All the magic was gone from it. And what had produced that effect was the coyote that had been standing there in front of me seconds before was now dead in the grass and was no longer visible. And what I realized at that point and I think this is what we were talking about last night, is not that we shouldn’t be involved with animals when we have some need. We shouldn’t kill an animal, kill a deer when we want to put it in the freezer and eat venison for a year, because this is who we are. I mean, my book, if it says anything, is that we emerged out of Africa and spread around the world as hunters of animals. And it’s in our DNA, it’s in our genetics. I described several different ways where we are all still really made by the evolutionary forces that produce that hunting background. But what I also realized as a result of this incident with that coyote is that animals love being alive. Another story I told you last night was that Adolph Muire story. When he was in Yellowstone in the 1930s and watched a coyote one morning trotting along a game trail. And 100 yards away, he could see it kept throwing its head in the air. And he couldn’t figure out what in the world it was doing until it got within about 25 yards of him. And he could see this coyote was trotting along a game trail with a sprig of sagebrush in its mouth, tossing it into the air and catching it. And as it went by him, what Murie realized was that he was getting to witness an animal that was on a beautiful morning in Yellowstone National Park. This coyote was in love with the morning, in love with the light, in love with the smell of sagebrush and in love with being alive.

Ramsey Russell: He was just happy.

Dan Flores: He was happy. And what I realized as a result of my experience with that coyote in the Red River Valley was that while this is part of our heritage as human beings, to hunt and sometimes to kill animals, it has to be done for a really good reason. Because doing it for pure pleasure or recreation, that’s not sufficient cause to kill an animal. Another living being that’s in love with being alive just the way we are. And so, the reason has to be a really powerful one. And that’s sort of the way I’ve come at all 3 of these books I’ve written in the last 7 years. American Serengeti, Coyote America and Wild New World. They’re not anti hunting books by any means, but what they’re trying to do is to make the people who read them understand the animals in a way they’ve never understood them before. And understand our long term relationship with these animals, which goes back millions of years and for a great many people, is kind of a kinship, religious, cosmological connection. And yet for those of us who come out of that western European tradition of the last couple of thousand years, that elevated humans to be above everything else, I mean, it can turn into something that’s not very admirable. And so that’s kind of my cause in writing these books.

Ramsey Russell: When I was in college, I came from a hook and bullet background. I wanted to get into wildlife management. I wanted to make the world a better place. Mandatory reading at Mississippi State University and civil culture. Mandatory reading was a Sand County Almanac. And what I love so much about your book, Dan, it’s a historical perspective. And I can tell you right now, if I taught at Mississippi State University and Wildlife, it’d be mandatory reading. I think, everybody listening. Everybody, day, there’s 8 and a half billion people on Earth. We’ve got different ideas of how to skin the cat in terms of management and conservation and I just think we that don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Dan Flores: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Thank you very much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and I’ve loved your book. Anybody listening, trust me, Wild New World, get a copy. You won’t be able to put it down no better than I did. Thanks you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.



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It really is Duck Season Somewhere for 365 days. Ramsey Russell’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast is available anywhere you listen to podcasts. Please subscribe, rate and review Duck Season Somewhere podcast. Share your favorite episodes with friends. Business inquiries or comments contact Ramsey Russell at And be sure to check out our new GetDucks Shop.  Connect with Ramsey Russell as he chases waterfowl hunting experiences worldwide year-round: Insta @ramseyrussellgetducks, YouTube @DuckSeasonSomewherePodcast,  Facebook @GetDucks