By Gerry Swanson
Months of brief days and lengthy cold nights are times for deep thoughts, it has been for ages.
Certain Native American tribes recorded the passing of years by archiving images of memorable happenings onto a buffalo hide. These remarkable histories were typically done in the cold months, a good time for reflection. Thus they were called Winter Counts.
As a historical technique, winter count is a natural extension of the human mind and encapsulates time as individual events that visually symbolize a particular period. These depictions are of matters both good and bad, of successes and failures, of seasons of plenty and times of despair, of life and death. Winter count is history recorded one significant image at a time. What occurrences are noteworthy, however, are subject to the interpretation of the chronicler.
1630- The Massachusetts Bay Colony sets a long-term policy of wildlife persecution through misunderstanding and ignorance by establishing the first bounty system in the New World. The colony offers a penny per wolf pelt, a sum that suggests that Yankee thriftiness is already ingrained or that wolves are seen as ravening killers of little inherent worth. Given that wolf bounties will persist in the U.S. for over three centuries, the latter view is the most probable.
1784- Benjamin Franklin writes: “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of the country. The turkey is a more respectable bird. a bird of courage, and withal a true original native of America”
1844- The great auk ceases to exist. Mankind rarely knows when and how a species goes extinct. Indeed, few have actually watched an animal become legend. Among those few are three fisherman who, on June 3, 1844, land on the desolate island of Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, and kill the last pair of flightless great auks. One of the men smashes a lone egg, but that is no longer of consequence the great auk is already extinct.
1881,’82,’84- On the plus side of the wildlife ledger, the ring-necked pheasant is introduced into the U.S. by way of additional stockings and prolific reproduction. The ringneck becomes an iconic American gamebird.
1900—-Of the tens of millions of buffalo that not long past roamed the sprawling plains of the U.S., perhaps 300 remain. There are no more buffalo hides for winter counts. But that is largely irrelevant; the tribes and their chroniclers have been decimated along with the buffalo.
1903- President Theodore Roosevelt designates Pelican Island, Florida as the first National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, the system has evolved into 562 refuges and encompasses over 150 million acres.
1930—-Wild turkeys are extirpated from at least half their original U.S. range and continental population is reduced from its zenith of multi millions to a paltry 30,000 birds, though some biologists argue numbers weren’t quite that low. Seventy-four years later, in a stunningly successful rehabilitation program, U.S. wild turkey numbers have increased to nearly seven million birds with self-sustaining populations in every state except Alaska.
1947—-The Ruffed Grouse: Life History, Propagation, Management is published. This monumental research project, which began 17 years before the book’s publication, is the first major enterprise undertaken within the budding field of wildlife management and sets a standard for work that follows.
1973—- The Endangered Species Act becomes law. For the first time in nearly 350 years the grey wolf is fully protected, as is the bald eagle whose selection as the new country’s national symbol so aggravated Benjamin Franklin in 1784. The wolf will flourish and begin to reconstitute its numbers under the Act’s safeguards. But its improved status, as well as the Endangered Species Act itself, remains controversial to this day.
The buffalo hides, or what now passes for them, are blank. They wait for events to be rendered into an art form, but what will be recorded in years ahead is unknown. Like all history, winter count can only tell us where we have been, not where we are going in the great outdoors.