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Environment in Colonial New England

Invasive Species

The rapid introduction of hundreds of thousands of European settlers, along with the plants and livestock they brought with them, led to an inevitable alteration of the physical landscape of the North American continent. Even before the colonists arrived, Native Americans along the Atlantic coast had hunted large numbers of wild animal species to extinction. This process only accelerated once Indians began to prize the rifles, metal and glass trinkets, and other items that the Europeans offered them in exchange for furs.

Europeans brought pigs, sheep, horses and cattle with them to the New World, and these animals multiplied rapidly in America. In the process, they exhausted the supply of native grasses and shrubs that they grazed upon. The settlers also drained the ponds produced by native beavers in order to provide meadowland for their cows, destroying the areas that wild ducks had utilized as breeding grounds. Native animals prized for their furs, such as bears, wolves, raccoons, and deer, were quickly hunted to near-extinction (in some cases, to complete extinction) in settled areas. White colonists utilized wood for so many purposes that the coastal forests were swiftly depleted. The forest area was further reduced because farm animals (who reproduced even faster than humans) required ever-larger grazing areas. The resulting loss of forest canopy resulted in hotter summers and colder winters, and in a windier region than had existed prior to settlement. The cleared, grazed land was more susceptible to flooding. Erosion and drought resulted from the depleted watersheds and the more rapid snowmelt. With every alteration in landscape and introduction or decimation of a species, the physical landscape was transformed anew. Though they may not have realized it, whites and Indians alike were creating far-reaching environmental and ecological changes that would wield serious long-term consequences for the land, air, and sea upon which they and their descendants depended.

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