Aboriginal Overkill and Native Burning

Mon, 1 May 1995 13:40:32 +0000

Paper by Charles E. Kay, attached.

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Charles E. Kay, Ph.D.
Natural Resource Policy Associate
Institute of Political Economy
Utah State University
Logan, UT 84322-0725
(801) 797-2064

December 1994


Western environmental philosophy, which influences how our national parks and
natural areas are managed, rests on four assumptions. First, that there is a
"balance-of-nature" where ecosystems achieve a constancy or equilibrium that
persists through time. Implicit in this assumption is the belief that climax
vegetation was widespread in pre-Columbian times. Second, conservationists
invariably assume that, prior to the arrival of Europeans, America was a
"wilderness" untouched by the hand of man, and third, that this "wilderness"
teemed with wildlife, especially ungulates like elk (Cervus elaphus), moose
(Alces alces), and bison (Bison bison). Fourth, and finally, is the assumption
that Native Americans were either poor primitive, starving savages whose numbers
were too low to have any impact on the "pristine" landscape (Jobes 1991:388) or
that native peoples were children of nature and original conservationists who
were too wise to overuse their environment (Alvard 1993).
According to this view, pre-Columbia America was a "Garden-of-Eden" filled with
uncountable numbers of ungulates, wolves (Canis lupus), and other wildlife and
Europeans are the evil that destroyed this idyllic state of nature (McName 1986,
Rolston 1990, Noss 1991). So under this paradigm, all that is needed to restore
our ecosystems to their original condition is to eliminate European influences.
This is known as "letting nature take its course" and is often referred to as
"hands-off" or "natural regulation" management. These beliefs are so strongly
held by many ecologists that they seldom bother to consider whether they are, in
fact, valid. If they are not true, then adhering to this philosophy will not
lead to the protection of biological diversity or ecological integrity. That is
to say, if these underlying assumptions about nature are false, then management
based on those beliefs will not produce the desired result; i.e., the original
ecosystems will neither be restored or protected.

Although these "Garden-of-Eden" assumptions are romantically and bureaucratically
appealing, unfortunately, they are also false gods. As Botkin (1990), Pielou
(1991), and others (e.g., Johnson and Mayeux 1992, Pickett et al. 1992, DeGraaf
and Healy 1993, Tausch et al. 1993) have recently done an excellent job debunking
the "balance-of-nature" myth, I will not explore that subject further except to
note that disturbance and change are the only ecosystem constants -- there
certainly was no "forest primeval;" in fact, "old-growth" forests, as we know
them today, were very rare in pre-Columbian times (Stout 1981, Zybach 1993,
Covington and Moore 1994). Instead, I will discuss the remaining myths, namely
that the Intermountain West once teemed with game, that America was a "wilderness" ca. 1492, and that Native Americans had little impact on
pre-Columbian ecosystems.


Historical records do not support the view that the Intermountain West once
teemed with wildlife. Jacobs (1991:118) and Rasker et al. (1991:63), for
instance, claimed that moose were abundant throughout the northern Rocky
Mountains, numbering in the tens of thousands, before those animals were
slaughtered by unregulated hunting, but early fur trappers seldom reported seeing
or killing even a single moose. When Peter Skene Ogden's (1950:73) fur brigade
killed three moose near present-day Philipsburg, Montana in 1825, he noted that
it was the first time any of his men had seen a moose despite having spent a
total of nearly 300 man-years in the West during the early 1800's.

Although not as rare as moose, elk were also historically uncommon in the Rocky
Mountains. Between 1835 and 1872, for example, 20 different parties spent a
total of 765 days traveling through Yellowstone on foot or horseback, yet
reported seeing elk only once every 18 days -- today there are nearly 100,000 elk
in that ecosystem (Kay 1990, in press a). The same was true in the Canadian
Rockies where early explorers reported seeing elk only once every 31 days (Kay et
al. 1994, Kay and White this volume). During the 1800's, elk were also rare or
absent from Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, as well as other regions of the
Intermountain West (Koch 1941, Rawley 1985, Davis 1986). Based on historical and
archaeological data (Kay 1990, 1992, 1994a; Kay et al. 1994), there are now more
elk in the West than at any time in the last 10,000 years.

Moreover, deer (Odocoileus hemionus and O. virginianus), antelope (Antilocapra
americana), and bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) were also rare or absent when the
Rocky Mountains were first visited by Europeans. Accounts of starvation and
killing horses for food are common in early journals (Kay in press a). Except
for the Snake River Plains and surrounding areas, few bison were ever seen west
of the mountains. Today in Yellowstone National Park there are an estimated
4,200 bison, but between 1835 and 1872, early explorers encountered bison only
three times despite spending 765 days in the ecosystem (Kay 1990). The Columbia
Plateau and the Great Basin were particularly devoid of game at historical
contact (Daubenmire 1985, Grayson 1993).

Berry production data also suggest that historical ungulate populations were
low. Ethnographic accounts and archaeological studies reveal that Native
Americans routinely consumed large quantities of berries such as serviceberries
(Amelanchier alnifolia) and chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) (e.g., Lowie 1909,
Chamberlin 1911). In September 1869, for instance, the Cook-Folsom-Peterson
Expedition met Native Americans who were gathering and drying large quantities of
chokecherries at the mouth of Tom Miner Creek just north of Yellowstone Park.
"Here we found a wickiup inhabited by two old squaws who were engaged in
gathering and drying choke-cherries ... they had two or three bushels drying in
the sun" (Haines 1965:16). The Washburn Expedition of 1870 reported that near
Yellowstone Park "we crossed a small stream bordered with black cherry trees
[chokecherries], many of the smaller ones broken down by bears, of which animal
we found many signs" (Langford 1972:13). Since shrubs have to be at least 2 m
tall before branches are commonly broken down by feeding bears, chokecherry
plants in 1870 not only produced abundant berries, but were also very large.
Conditions today are vastly different. Serviceberry and chokecherry plants in
Yellowstone are now less than 50 cm tall and they produced virtually no berries
because the plants are repeatedly browsed by elk and other ungulates (Kay in
press b) (see Table 1). Resource-limited ungulate populations and large
quantities of berries are mutually exclusive on western ranges. Even moderate
numbers of ungulates curtail berry production because those shrubs provide highly
preferred forage, especially in winter.

The fact that historic and prehistoric peoples in the West consumed large
quantities of berries means that ungulate numbers were low and those animals were
not limited by food. The unbrowsed condition of vegetation seen in early
historical photographs also indicates that few ungulates inhabited our western
ranges during the 1700 and 1800s (Chadde and Kay 1991, Kay and Wagner in press).
Moreover, archaeological data reveal that ungulate populations were low in
pre-Columbian times as well (Kay 1990, 1992, 1994a, Kay et al. 1994).


Carnivore predation and native hunting are two factors that could once have
limited ungulate numbers. The age of their respective kills, however, indicates
that Native Americans were more efficient predators than wolves (Temple 1987).The
more difficult it is for a predator to capture a particular prey, the more that
predator will take substandard individuals and young. So, if two or more
predators are preying upon the same species, the least efficient predator will
tend to kill fewer prime-age animals (Okarma 1984). While wolves and other
carnivores kill primarily young-of-the-year and old animals, Native Americans
killed mostly prime-age ungulates (Figure 1).

Since ungulates recovered from Intermountain archaeological sites invariably
exhibit mortality profiles dominated by prime-age animals, this suggests that
Native Americans were more efficient predators than wolves or other carnivores.
Killing mostly prime age animals, though, runs contrary to any maximum sustained
yield strategy (Hastings 1983, 1984) and indicates that Native Americans could
have had a major impact on pre-Columbian ungulate populations. This is even more
true when one considers that Native Americans killed primarily females (Kay

As I have presented my Aboriginal Overkill hypothesis elsewhere (Kay 1994a, in
prep), I will not elaborate on its details here except to note that Native
American preferences for prime age females runs counter to any conservation
strategy. It is often claimed, however, that Native Americans' religious belief
systems prevented those peoples from over-utilizing their resources (e.g., Speck
1939, Nelson 1983). Native Americans tended to view wildlife as their spiritual
kin where success in the hunt was obtained by following prescribed rituals and
atonement after the kill (Feit 1987). A scarcity of animals or failure in the
hunt were not viewed as biological or ecological phenomena, but rather as a
spiritual consequence of social events or circumstances. If a Native American
could not find any game, it was not because his people had overharvested the
resource, but because he had done something to displease his gods. Since Native
Americans saw no connection between their hunting and game numbers, their system
of religious beliefs actually fostered the over-exploitation of ungulate
populations. Religious respect for animals does not equal conservation.
Instead, all native hunters are essentially opportunistic and tend to take
high-ranking ungulates regardless of the size of the prey populations or the
likelihood of those animals becoming extinct. Native Americans had no concept of
maximum sustained yield and did not manage ungulate populations to produce the
greatest offtake. In addition, human predation and predation by carnivores are
additive and work in concert to reduce ungulate numbers (Walters et al. 1981).
Moreover, competition from carnivores tended to negate any possible conservation
practices (Kay 1994a). Because Native Americans could prey-switch to small
animals, vegetal foods, and fish, they could take their preferred ungulate prey
to low levels or extinction without having any adverse effect on human
populations. In fact, once Native Americans killed off all the ungulates, human
populations actually rose (Hawkes 1991, 1992, 1993).

There are, however, exceptions to aboriginal overkill. According to
predator-prey theory, prey populations will increase if they have a refugium
where they are safe from predation (Taylor 1984). So, ungulates that could
escape aboriginal hunters in time or in space should have been more abundant.
Moreover, refugia do not have to be complete to be effective. Partial refugia
will also enable prey populations to survive. This explains why there were
larger numbers of ungulates on the Great Plains and in the Arctic. By
undertaking long-distance migrations, bison and caribou (Rangifer tarandus) were
able to outdistance most of their human and carnivorous predators (Kay 1994a).
Ungulates were also able to survive in buffer zones between tribes that were
locked in mortal combat (Hickerson 1965). Lewis and Clark (1893:1197), for
instance, noted that, "With regard to game in general, we observe that the
greatest quantities of wild animals are usually found in the country lying
between nations at war."


Besides keeping ungulate numbers low, Native Americans also had a major impact on
ecosystems by repeatedly firing the vegetation. They did this to modify plant
and animal communities for human benefit. In California, for instance, native
peoples had at least 70 different reasons for firing the vegetation (Lewis 1973,
Timbrook et al. 1982), and even in northern Canada, where the vegetation is less
diverse, Native Americans still set fires for at least 17 different reasons
(Lewis 1977, 1980a, 1982b, 1985, 1990a; Ferguson 1979; Reid 1987; Lewis and
Ferguson 1988). While aboriginal burning has been widely reported in the
anthropological literature (e.g., Lewis 1980b, 1982a, 1990b; Boyd 1986; Turner
1991; Anderson 1993; Pyne 1993; Gottesfeld 1994), those data have largely been
ignored by land managers, especially in our national parks and wilderness areas
(Lewis 1992, Martinez 1993). In Yellowstone, for example, the Park Service
contends that aboriginal fires were unimportant, and that most fires were
historically started by lightning (Loope and Gruell 1973:434, Romme and Despain
1989). This position, though, is not supported by available ecological
evidence. Instead, most fires were started by Native Americans, especially in
montane habitats.

Prior to park establishment, Yellowstone's northern range had a fire-return
interval of once every 25 years (Houston 1973, 1982). Yellowstone has had a "let
burn" policy for nearly 25 years, yet during that period, lightning-caused fires
have burned practically none of the northern range. In 1988, fire did burn approximately one-third of the area, but according to agency definitions, that
was "unnatural" because the fire was started by man, not lightning. Besides, the
1988 fires are thought to be a 100-300 year event (Schullery 1989a, 1989b), so
similar fires could not have caused the original 25 year fire frequency.

Despite a series of droughts, why has Yellowstone's northern range remained
virtually unburned? Park biologists contend that this is because "lightning has
chosen not to strike very often on the northern range" (Despain et al.
1986:109). That assertion, though, is not supported by data from the Bureau of
Land Management's Automatic Lightning Strike Detection System which shows that,
on average, lightning strikes the northern range 4 times per km_2_/year (Kay
1990:136-137). So lightning strikes, but why doesn't the range burn? The answer
is that when most lightning strikes occur, the herbaceous vegetation is too green
to carry a fire.

Repeat photographs and fire history studies indicate that western aspen (Populus
tremuloides) communities burned frequently in the past, yet experience has proven
that aspen is extremely difficult to burn (Brown and Simmerman 1986). Terms such
as "asbestos type" and "firebreak" are often used to describe aspen (DeByle
1987:75). Even raging crown fires in coniferous forests seldom burn adjacent
aspen communities (Fechner and Barrows 1976). At current rates of burning, "it
would require about 12,000 years to burn the entire aspen type in the West"
(DeByle et al. 1987:73). Something is clearly different today than it was in the

Research has shown that aspen communities will readily burn only when aspen is
leafless and when understory plants are dry, conditions that occur only in early
spring and late in the fall (Brown and Simmerman 1986). Prior to May 15th and
after September 15th, however, there are few lightning strikes and virtually no
lightning fires in the West (Figure 2). So, if aspen stands burned at frequent
intervals in the past as data indicate they did, including those on Yellowstone's
northern range, then the majority of those fires were most likely set by Native

Determining how fires started is critical because, "fires set by hunter-gatherers
differ from [lightning] fires in terms of seasonality, frequency, intensity, and
ignition patterns" (Lewis 1985:75). Most aboriginal fires were set in the
spring, between snowmelt and vegetation greenup, or late in the fall when burning
conditions were not severe. Unlike lightning fires, which tend to be infrequent
high-intensity infernos, native burning produced a higher frequency of
lower-intensity fires. So, aboriginal burning and lightning fires create
different vegetation mosaics, and in many instances, entirely different plant
communities (Anderson 1993, Blackburn and Anderson 1993). Moreover, aboriginal
burning reduces or eliminates the number of high-intensity, lightning-generated
fires (Pyne 1982, 1989, 1991, 1993; Reid 1987:34). Once aboriginal fires opened
up the vegetation, then subsequent lightning fires behaved like those set by
Native Americans.


Most national parks, wilderness areas, and nature reserves are supposedly managed
to represent the conditions that existed in pre-Columbian times; i.e., so-called
natural or pristine conditions. But what is natural? If Native Americans determined the structure of entire plant and animal communities by firing the
vegetation and by limiting ungulate numbers, then that is a completely different
situation than what we have today (Martinez 1993, Wagner and Kay 1993). A
"hands-off" or "natural regulation" approach by modern land managers will not
duplicate the ecological conditions under which those communities developed
(Wagner et al. in press). Since aboriginal predation and burning created those
communities, then the only way to maintain what we call "natural areas" today is
to duplicate aboriginal influences and processes (Martinez 1993, Wagner et al. in

Prior to the early 1800's, for example, millions of beaver (Castor canadensis)
occupied lush riparian zones throughout the West. Beaver were so abundant that
in 1825, Peter Skene Ogden's party was able to trap 511 beaver in only five days
on Utah's Ogden River, while in 1829, Ogden reported that his fur brigade took
1,800 beaver in a month on Nevada's Humboldt River (Kay 1994b). Yellowstone too
once contained large numbers of beaver, but that species is now ecologically
extinct on the park's northern range (Chadde and Kay 1991). Without native
hunters, the park's burgeoning elk population has destroyed the willow (Salix
sp.) and aspen communities beaver need for food and dam building materials
(Chadde and Kay 1991; Kay and Chadde 1992). So, "natural regulation" management
has not maintained Yellowstone's ecological integrity nor reestablished the
ecosystem's original conditions.

Moreover, the idea that North America was a "wilderness" untouched by the hand of
man prior to 1492 is a myth, a myth created, in part, to justify appropriation of
aboriginal lands and the genocide that befell native peoples (Denevan 1992,
Gomez-Pompa and Kaus 1992, Simms 1992, Martinez 1993). North America was not a
"wilderness" waiting to be "discovered," but instead was home to more than 100
million Native Americans before European-introduced diseases decimated their
numbers (Dobyns 1983, Ramenofsky 1987).

Native Americans were the ultimate keystone species, and their removal has
completely altered ecosystems, not only in the Intermountain West but throughout
North America (e.g., Neumann 1984, 1985, 1989; Birkedal 1993). Setting aside an
area as "wilderness" or a national park today, and then managing it by
"letting-nature-take-its course," will not preserve some remnant of the past but
instead create conditions that have not existed for the last 10,000 years. That
is to say, the Americas as first seen by Europeans were not as they had been
crafted by God, but as they had been created by native peoples (Hallam 1975,
Schule 1990, Martinez 1993). Unless the importance of aboriginal land management
is recognized and modern management practices changed accordingly, our ecosystems
will continue to loose the biological diversity and ecological integrity they
once had.


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Figure 1. Age structure of ungulates killed by wolves and Native Americans. (a)
Age of white-tailed deer (O. virginianus) killed by wolves in Minnesota (Fritts
and Mech 1981). Wolves and other North American carnivores generally take a
disproportionate number of very young and very old animals. (b) Age of mule deer
(O. hemious) unearthed from the 4200 year old Dead Indian Creek archaeological
site in northwest Wyoming just east of Yellowstone Park (Simpson 1984). Unlike
carnivores, Native Americans killed a predominance of prime-age ungulates -- an
indication that Native Americans were more efficient predators. This also
suggests that aboriginal peoples had a greater impact on prey populations than
carnivores, especially given the fact that natives killed mostly females.
Moreover, these deer were killed with spears or atlatls which are less efficient
than the bow and arrow that came into use around 1,500 years ago (Blitz 1988).
Clearly, native hunters have been able to kill all sex and age classes of North
American ungulates at will for the last 10,000 or so years. Birkedal (1993) even
reported that Native Americans armed with no more than spears and hunting dogs
once kept grizzly bear populations at very low levels.

Figure 2. Temporal distribution of lightning strikes on Yellowstone's northern
range and in Wyoming's Jackson Hole (Kay 1990:138). When aspen communities are
normally dry enough to burn in early spring, prior to green-up, or late autumn,
after aspen leaf-fall, there are few lightning strikes and virtually no lightning
fires. So if aspen burned frequently in the past as data indicate they did, then
the vast majority of those fires were most likely started by Native Americans.

Table 1. The effect of ungulate browsing on berry production in the
Yellowstone Ecosystem. The number of berries produced by plants protected from
browsing inside ungulate-proof exclosures compared with the number of berries
produced by the same species outside the exclosures. The Lamar-West and
Mammoth exclosures are in Yellowstone Park while the Uhl Hill and Camp Creek
exclosures are in Jackson Hole. This also explains why Yellowstone's grizzlies
(Ursus arctos) do not consume large quantities of berries, unlike bears in
other ecosystems. From 1977 to 1992, over 10,000 grizzly bear scats were
collected and analyzed in Yellowstone, yet chokecherries were only reported in
one scat, serviceberries in two, and buffaloberries (Shepherdia canadensis) in
51. Adapted from Kay (in press b).

Number of Berries per 100 Plants
Exclosure-species Inside Outside p

Camp Creek
Serviceberry 133,307 7 <.001

Serviceberry 111,047 0 <.001
Chokecherry 212,178 0 <.001

Uhl Hill
Serviceberry 10,468 0 <.001
Chokecherry 6,508 0 <.001
Buffaloberry 119,146 250 <.001

Total 592,654 257 <.001