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Ecology of the Shortgrass SteppeA Long-Term Perspective$
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W. K. Lauenroth and I. C. Burke

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195135824

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195135824.001.0001

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Land-Use History on the Shortgrass Steppe

Land-Use History on the Shortgrass Steppe

(p.55) 4 Land-Use History on the Shortgrass Steppe
Ecology of the Shortgrass Steppe

Richard H. Hart

Oxford University Press

As described in chapter 1 of this volume, the grasslands of central North America began to expand at the end of the Wisconsin period (about 10,000 years BP), and continued their expansion through the warming trend that persisted until about 3000 years BP, occupying their maximum territory at that time (Dix, 1964). Currently, the region still supports trees on escarpments, along streams, and at other sites protected from fire, but centuries ago, fires caused by lightning or kindled by Native Americans may have eliminated relict stands of forest and savanna on the open plains. Large browsers and grazers also may have played a part in eliminating trees as well as grasses sensitive to grazing pressure (Axelrod, 1985). Throughout millennia, bison in particular were likely to have shaped the plant communities of the shortgrass steppe, and thus were an essential component of the system (Larson, 1940). Bison appeared as early as 300,000 years BP; bison, mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, and other grazers were numerous by 20,000 years BP. Humans arrived in North America perhaps as early as 60,000 years BP, but certainly by 15,000 years ago. Fires and bison may have achieved maximum impact as recently as the past 500 years (Axelrod, 1985; Looman, 1977). The roles of climate, fire, and grazing in the development of North American grasslands have been examined by Ellison (1960), Coupland (1979), Dyer et al. (1982), Anderson (1982), and Tetlyanova et al. (1990). The earliest known human sites on the shortgrass steppe date to about 13,000 years BP (Wedel, 1 979) and a re f ound i n the vicinity o f fossil g lacial l akes. The population of these mammoth hunters was apparently sparse and scattered. Soon after 11,000 years BP, many of the large mammalian species such as the mammoth, native horse, camel, and ground sloth vanished, and the hunters turned to bison. Bone beds representing mass kills of bison have been found below buffalo jumps (Fig. 4.1) and even in the remains of wood or stone corrals, but single kills must have been much more common.

Keywords:   Altithermal, Bison, Cacti, Drought, Homestead Act, Land-use distress, Mammoths, Native Americans, Oklahoma Panhandle

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