An Early Environmental Debate Over the Destruction of Prairie in Pierce County
Introduction: Today the Prairie around Yelm is different in it’s plant life than it was in the mid 19th century. There are a variety of reasons for this change. One factor was the grazing of cattle, horses, and sheep on the prairie. The impact of these animals was hotly debated in an exchange of letters in Tacoma papers in the 1890s. On one side was W. H. Snell who argued that the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, an affiliate of the Hudson’s Bay Company and resident on the prairie, and ruined the prairie through it’s grazing practices. On the other side, defending the company and it’s practices, was Edward Huggins, a former employee of the farm and at one time county auditor of Pierce County. Huggins wrote the following analysis of the issue:
Steilacoom, September 5, 1900.
My Dear Sir:
In the Friday evening last issue of the Tacoma Evening News I noticed a short item, headed: “Eating Out Bunchgrass,” and saying that “… the prairies south of Tacoma are an example, and that within the time of the memory of man, the grass on the prairies grew as high as the withers of an elk, but when the Hudson’s Bay men brought in droves of cattle
and sheep, the grass was eaten out root and branch, and now only a fuzz of short grass and moss grows on the prairies.”
I assure you, the writer of this has been misinformed. I would like to cause him to be put right, and give the credit of the destruction of the fine growth of grass, which thirty-
five or forty years ago covered the greater part of the prairie land in Pierce County, to whom it belongs.
I could conclusively prove that it was not the livestock of the English Puget Sound Agricultural Company which caused the extinction of the indigenous blue bunchgrass upon these plains, for in 1862, the company had hardly any livestock running upon the 160,000 acres of land it claimed to own in Pierce County.
About 500 sheep, 100 head of cattle and a few wild horses then belonged to this company, and long after they discontinued the breeding of cattle and sheep to any great extent, the grass upon these plains grew luxuriantly. When this company pastured about 12,000 sheep, 7,000 head of cattle and upwards of 300 horses, the grass, except immediately around the principal establishment. Fort Nisqually, and the seven or eight outlying stations, continued to be very good indeed. The cattle, from being constantly shot at, became so wild and unmanageable as rendered it almost impossible to handle as buffalo, and in 1854-1855 they almost all disappeared from the plains.
The large lot of sheep was so managed that the grass did not receive any injury from the herd pastured upon it. They were kept in bands of from 500 to 700 and were herded by
Indians, two to each band which were under the supervision of a white man, who resided at the out-stations. Each white head shepherd had under his charge from two to four of
these bands, which were carefully parked every night and the parks or corrals, moved every two or three nights, thus thoroughly manuring several acres of land around each station for arable purposes.
The sheep were not allowed to overpasture the land, but were moved to new ground before the grass became injured. This grass was of a very nutritious character. Although it was in bunches, it was not like the grass common to the east side o the mountains, which leaves fully half the ground bare. It covered the ground completely, making a thick sward, which even in the hot Summer months, did not dry up, but was of a deep, bluish green color. In the Winter Season here the cattle and horses had to shift for themselves, and lived principally in the woods, coming out in the early Spring months in a deplorably thin condition.
A few weeks’ run upon the green, nutritious prairie grass made them different animals, the cattle fit for beef and the horses fat and sleek looking. In the early 50s there was very little of the prairie land fenced up, and the livestock had the run of the entire plains, thus affording ample room for feeding, without seriously injuring the grass. . . .
In 1870 the land formerly claimed by the English Company was surveyed, and thrown open to settlement, and the most available parts of it were soon taken up. Large tracts were fenced and no regard was made to the amount or quantity of land comprised within the lawful boundaries of the claims taken. A man fenced up as much land as his means would admit of, or his neighbors would allow him, and I know of instance where a man who could claim lawfully to own only one hundred sixty acres of land had fenced up from one thousand to two thousand acres and held undisputed possession of it until someone came along and interfered with his calculations by perhaps entering a homestead or pre-emption claim, in the midst of his large, squatted upon tract.
In this way fully one-half the prairie land was fenced up, and at that time almost all the prairie farmers owned sheep, some one hundred and some even as many as two thousand sheep I think I am safe in saying that in the ’70s and early ’80s upwards of thirty thousand sheep ran upon the Squally plains
Of course, nature never intended these plains to pasture such a large number of sheep and mind you, at the same time there were many head of cattle and horses also running at
large upon these plains. The large number of sheep were pastured during the Spring and Summer months upon the commons, or unfenced lands, and the enclosed lands were
reserved for Winter pasture.
The common grass had no chance to seed, and that large number of sheep soon killed out the old original bunchgrass, the sheep in fact nibbling it so close that the hot July and August heat, and scorching northwest winds dried up and killed its roots, and a growth of worthless grass and weeds has taken its place.
So you see, it was not the Hudson’s Bay Company’s droves of cattle and sheep which ruined the Nisqually plains, and caused its grass-covered acres to be more worthless than
are the majority of the arid plains of Arizona and California because they are susceptible of improvement by irrigation, but the greater part of the Nisqually plains are beyond the
reach of such, because of the porous nature of the sub-soil, which is pure worthless gravel, which would drink up and los< all water put upon it like a sieve.
I have often heard it said that the Hudson’s Bay Company did this and that to the detriment of the soil, such as the introduction of injurious weeds, the overfeeding of and
destruction of the pasture lands, etc, but this in untrue. It is, not at all likely that this great company would do anything willfully to deteriorate the value of its own property, for, in the days prior to 1846, both the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Puget Sound Companies firmly believed that the Columbia River would most certainly be the boundary line separating the two great countries, and that they would obtain title to the immense tracts of land they claimed from the British government. If they had not felt certain of this, they would not have made the expensive improvements they did . . . . (From: The Tacoma News)