Elk roamed prairie


orchids bloomed

the bay was clear

June 16, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

Another article yesterday about disappearing Maryland plants and wildlife incorrectly identified D. Daniel Boone, an environmentalist with the Wilderness Society in Washington. It also omitted this quote: "Over 500 species are considered in jeopardy of disappearing in Maryland; approximately 200 have already disappeared."

The Sun regrets the errors.

A visitor tramping through the state 400 years ago, before the arrival of the first Europeans, would have confronted a landscape that modern Marylanders might barely recognize.

Chesapeake Bay waters were clear, not murky. Sturgeon, a huge fish that's now hard to find, were abundant. Flocks of millions of passenger pigeons, now extinct, could blot out the sun at noon. Forests were 40 percent taller than today's and covered almost all of Maryland.


Scientists are increasingly interested in what the Eastern United States was like before Europeans and their descendants began farming, hunting, logging and building.

By figuring out how settlement altered the course of the evolution of the environment, they hope to better understand what can be preserved and restored.

"It's a dynamic system. If you want to intervene sensibly in it, you have to know where it's come from," said historian Philip Curtin of the Johns Hopkins University, who is leading a group of 21 scientists writing a history of the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay.

In some ways, this lost world bears little resemblance to ours.

Forests were hung, in places, with Spanish moss. They sheltered several kinds of orchids and were scarred by jagged patches of blackened ground from lightning-sparked fires.

There were perhaps four times as many bogs, swamps and other wetlands. Herds of Eastern wood bison and elk roamed a small stretch of prairie near Hagerstown. Panthers and timber wolves stalked them.

Many plants and creatures had not yet arrived from Europe or Asia: Honeybees, carp, opossum, black rats, house mice, crab grass, Japanese honeysuckle, coyotes and cockroaches.

Dr. Curtin is looking at one of the most dramatic transformations, that of the bay region's human population. Among the first organisms introduced to North America by Europeans and their slaves were diseases: smallpox and two strains of malaria, one from Europe and one from Africa.

For more than a century, devastating epidemics swept through the villages of the indigenous peoples, whose ancestors had arrived in North America from Asia about 18,000 years earlier.

Between 1608, when Captain John Smith first sailed up the Chesapeake, and 1700, the native American population of the Bay region declined from about 45,000 to about 4,500, Dr. Curtin estimates. Some tribes, including the 8,000-strong Susquehannocks, were wiped out.

Many indigenous plant and animal species suffered the same fate as the Native Americans.

"Over 500 species are considered in jeopardy of disappearing in Maryland; approximately 200 have already disappeared," said D. Daniel Boone, an environmentalist with the Wilderness Society in Washington.

Some native organisms were simply slaughtered by the well-armed and burgeoning human population. The last bison in Maryland was hunted and killed in 1775, the last gray wolf, in 1850, and the last elk, in 1874.

Some plants and animals disappeared when their habitats were chopped down or plowed under. But many were decimated by the subtler, secondary effects of civilization.

Consider a plant, the Indian paintbrush, and an insect, the Regal Fritillary butterfly.

Both were once common in meadows throughout Maryland. Today, the plant is found only along one roadside east of Oakland in Garrett County.

The butterfly was last seen in the Upper Bay region. "There may be only one population left in the state," Mr. Boone said.

Both organisms thrive in so-called "successional" habitats, that is, grazed prairie or open fields cleared by storms or lightning-sparked fires, Mr. Boone said.

Now the bison and elk that grazed the prairie are gone.

Forests that are cut for lumber are quickly replanted with fast-growing trees, or cultivated, or developed or paved.

Fires are suppressed.

Natives lose out

In the remaining meadows, native plants are probably muscled out by "exotic" foreign species that hitchhiked to North America along with the colonists, said Dr. James L. Reveal, a professor of botany at College Park.

In the late 1970s, Dr. Reveal went to England to study 2,000 specimens of native Maryland plants gathered by botanists between 1680 and 1730. The collections, he said, show that "many of the rare plants of Maryland or plants that are today found only in Western Maryland were in fact widespread on the coastal plain."

Swamp pink, a relative of the lily; chaffseed, which resembles foxglove; and the dragon's mouth orchid are all scarce or gone, ** Dr. Reveal said. In their places are imported species such as crab grass, fox-grape, barberry, Japanese honeysuckle, dianthus and white mulberry.

Today perhaps a fifth of the plant species in the state are intruders.

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