The Problem of Rewilding
2016 | Story and photos by Haley Pope
A long, eerie howl echoes through the mountains, bouncing off the canyon walls as the call travels into the night, hopefully to be received by another of its kind. Newly sprouted saplings wave their arms in the cool wind having just returned to the environment and finding it pleasant. Meanwhile, the reflection of a shadowy wingspan stretches across the pristine blue waters of a newly formed lake as a bird of prey flies through the air, eyes scanning for one of the multiplying rodents that live here. This is what you might see and hear in the wilderness if North America was rewilded. Or so the proponents of rewilding hope.
North America was once saturated with megafauna like lions, cheetahs, bison, horses, camels, wolves, and bears. Some of these species still live in small remote corners of the continent, while others have been extinct for centuries. Rewilding theory states that the loss of large predators in North America has led to wide-scale ecological degradation that can only be restored by reintroducing species that are essential for landscape-level ecological function. Dave Foreman, the author of Rewilding America, has called rewilding a “landmark for the wilderness conservation movement” since theoretically, it would also restore species on lower trophic levels (think, food chain).
In other words, to return North America back to the vibrant, biodiverse wilderness it once was, where large predators roamed the plains, forest, and mountaintops, animals that have become locally extinct must be returned. This is because many of the species lost were “keystone species” or “biological engineers”, scientific terms that imply their presence and absence in a landscape has a disproportionate impact on other wildlife and the environment.
American bison (Bison bison) at The Nature Conservancy's Medano-Zapata Ranch in Southwestern Colorado. Bison used to roam across the prairies of the whole wild west. After the west was colonized by the American pioneers in the 19th century, bison eventually died off due to overharvesting. Today, bison have been reintroduced to a number of western states where they roamed centuries ago. Unfortunately, they largely remained confined to parks and ranches with closed borders.
A mother moose and her two little babies rest partially hidden in the grass while their mother drink from the natural spring at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Moose are common today in the forested northwestern states like Wyoming. In Colorado, moose were reintroduced in the 1970s to establish a stable breeding population. By 2012, there were 2,300 moose permanently living in the state.
To return North America back the vibrant, biodiverse wilderness it once was, animals that have become extinct must be returned.
How do rewilding advocates propose to return these lost, iconic species? Through the reintroduction and translocation of animals to formerly inhabited regions. This approach is the most responsible and likely version of rewilding to succeed without detrimental impacts. Other proponents suggest that completely extinct animals like the wooly mammoth, saber tooth tiger, or passenger pigeon should be brought back (literally, to life). This would require a whole suite of genetic manipulations and scientific tinkering. For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus solely on the more reasonable version.
As an animal lover, I’m tempted to support the idea of rewilding in hopes that it would save iconic species from extinction and increase biodiversity. However, I’m conflicted. I’m also a conservationist and zoologist. When I think rationally and resist emotional sway, I see that rewilding is, at best, a dangerous attempt at compensating nature (and ourselves) for our past crimes by continuing to exert our authority over other species. (Is this any less selfish than when we eradicated them from these locations in the first place?). I remain unconvinced of its efficacy for three main reasons their associated problems.
Unfit Species Cannot Survive
The reintroduction of large animals to a landscape and biological system that is different from when they were previously present is not destined to be successful.
Most of today’s environments, climates, and wildlife are vastly different from what they once were. Human population growth, urbanization, and climate change are all partly to blame and are not factors that will disappear. Yet, changes to Earth’s environments and species are normal and expected. Our planet has never been static, nor will it be.
That is my first concern regarding rewilding. Rewilding proposes to take large predators, in particular, and reinsert them into the system after being absent, although the reason for their absence is likely due to environmental or human-mediated pressures that are still present. It comes across as an attempt to keep the system static.
As ecologists know, species that are unable to adapt to changing conditions within a habitat, are unlikely to remain due to threats to reproduction and survival. Species in this predicament are faced with a choice: stay and risk survival, or relocate to a region that better suits their current needs and adaptations. Throughout time, many species have chosen the latter option and relocated to different geographic ranges in response to environmental pressures. This movement can allow them to cope with and adapt to changing circumstances, hopefully ensuring their survival.
Yet, geographic ranges are not only influenced by natural environmental causes. Humans have been manipulating nature since the beginning of our days – oftentimes, to our own benefit. However, nature is complex, interconnected, and unpredictable. We are unable to conceptualize the ripple effects of one action. Our interferences so far, have triggered negative impacts on a global scale that will be tricky to stop or reverse. We represent a constant and unyielding threat to many species. To deny this is to deny the evolutionary history of our species.
With that in mind, if we reintroduced a large predatory species into an environment where it had been absent, there is no reason to assume the species will still be adapted to that environment. Therefore, there is also no reason to assume the introduction would be successful and ultimately, that the species would thrive, the end goal of rewilding. For species that have not been absent from an ecosystem long, reintroductions may be successful and may bring about positive effects, as in the case with wolves. However, we must be mindful that we run the risk of species becoming extinct again due to their inability to adapt, even for those that have only been absent for a few decades.
This black timber wolf (Canis lupus) was rescued from a pet breeding program and brought to the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center, an animal sanctuary. Wolves used to be found all over the western United States, but in the early 1900s they became victim to indiscriminate hunting and were soon extinguished from the region. After several wolf reintroductions in the 1990s, wild wolves now roam across much of their previously inhabited western ranges.
Nature is complex, interconnected, and unpredictable. Because of this, we are often unable to conceptualize the ripple effects that our actions will have.
During a trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, we came across a mother black bear (Ursus americanus) and her cub foraging through the bushes. While black bears have held on to much of their historic geographic ranges, black bear populations plummeted in mid-western states like Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Black bears were reintroduced to those states in the 1950s and afterward and have since established healthy populations.
A young female timber wolf at the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center was rescued from a pet breeding program. Unfortunately, she cannot be released back into the "wild" on account of her extreme habituation to humans.
2. Hunted Species Won’t Survive
If certain species are successfully reintroduced, human-wildlife conflicts are inevitable and humans (or other environmental factors) may eradicate them again.
In the late 1920s, wolves became extinct in the greater Yellowstone National Park area and by the 1950s, in much of the continental United States. Their extinction was due to deliberate and legal hunting by park officials and others who viewed them as destructive pests. By 1978, however, attitudes had changed and wolves were added to the federal list of endangered species. From 1994 to 1996, several packs of wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park from populations in Canada.
Scientific studies showed that the entire ecosystem of Yellowstone was impacted by the reintroduction. Populations of prey species fluctuated affecting the vegetation in the area. This encouraged the emergence of other wildlife and promoted higher biodiversity. It was concluded that the park had regained a more stable ecosystem balance. A great success story for rewilding.
But it doesn’t end there. Not everyone who lives in the surrounding area is happy the wolves are back, especially not livestock owners and farmers who blame wolves for predation of their herds and destruction of their fields. As a result, many wolves are illegally shot and killed soon after they venture outside park boundaries. Hunting has not decimated their numbers, but it has contributed to social instability within wolf packs. Who’s to say whether the attitude will not change again and wolves will once again be persecuted? Personally, I hope they survive, thrive, and propagate in the region. It would represent one of the few instances so far when rewilding has been put to the test and succeeded.
And yet, the space that humans have to share with these large, wild animals grows smaller every day. I currently live in Colorado, which is experiencing high immigration and high urban development. It’s anticipated that by 2050 the population in Colorado will have doubled from 4.3 million to 8.6 million. As other states follow suit, I have difficulty believing there will be enough space for everyone to live in harmony.
When space is limited, human-wildlife conflicts ensue. This is an enormous issue in countries in Southern Africa where too many people and too many wild animals coexist in the same space for the landscape to support. In this instance, both people and animals suffer. Wild animals kill people and their livestock and people, in turn, kill the wild animals. Furthermore, the strained environment in these places has only exacerbated the issue, heightening competition and tensions. Surely this is not what we are striving for.
3. Suffering Species Shouldn’t Survive
Reintroductions can cause immense suffering for animals who are ill equipped to thrive in the new landscape or for whom the landscape cannot support.
Proponents of rewilding express outward concern for our ethical responsibility to “right-a-wrong” and engage in this restoration effort. But few discuss the issue of animal welfare, incredibly pertinent to an ethical discussion. It should be discussed, along with ecological considerations, long before any action is taken to rewild our lands.
I believe in the “animal soul”, if you will; that animals are fully conscious beings with personalities and the ability to feel emotions like happiness and sorrow. I am not alone. Many cognitive ethologists and zoologists also believe this. Scientific and anecdotal evidence suggests it. Daphne Sheldrick, the founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an elephant sanctuary for orphaned elephants and rhinos in East Africa, recounts that elephants visibly mourn deceased members of their herd, and orphaned elephants go through traumatic experiences after their separation. Jane Goodall similarly describes occasions where chimpanzees were outwardly angry, embarrassed, or depressed in similar ways to humans. Lately, more and more evidence indicates that many marine animals also have complex consciousness and intelligence.
Imagine that bears or cougars or wolves, for instance, were reintroduced to former ranges after decades of being absent. On top of the adaptation challenges and human-wildlife conflicts they would face, they might also find the landscape cannot support them. All of which would cause suffering. Food and wilderness spaces might be limited, and the competition for those resources would be too fierce to win. Without those essential resources, individuals and then populations would die off. But maybe not before the animals were forced to ravage nearby towns and cities for scraps of food or unsuspecting humans or pets. We have seen this happen with mountain lions in the Los Angeles area.
Would those animals be happy in this situation? Or would they suffer during periods of starvation and intense competition with others for food and space? It might be considered animal abuse to play a game like this if only the animals we experimented with were our own dogs and cats!
As much as I would love to see bison, grizzly bears, cougars, wolves, jaguars, wolverines, and eagles grace the plains, mountains, and forests with their presence again, I don’t believe we will be doing an ecological service. If we could ensure these species would be successfully reintroduced, would have sufficient space and food for healthy competition, and would not provoke the anger (and bullets) of neighboring farmers, ranchers, and citizens then it might be worth the risk. But as mentioned, we are not skilled at predicting how nature will respond and thus, should not “play God”.
The Earth has ways of righting herself in time, rebounding from a myriad of fluctuations and disasters. She has been doing just that since the beginning of time. It is maddening and heart-breaking that humans have played such a prominent role in species’ extinctions. But, getting caught up in the alluring fantasy of rewilding is not an appropriate way to address past problems we have caused, nor is it a way of addressing the current problems that nature and humanity face. We should be focused on mitigating the harmful impacts we have today and trying to prevent additional species extinctions, rather than struggling to right the wrongs of the past without the necessary foresight. In the end, I think we will see there is greater risk in rewilding than reward.
An American bison stands regally in the early morning light, seen from The Nature Conservancy's Medano-Zapata Ranch in southwestern Colorado. Bison used to roam across the North American plains in the tens of thousands, but by the mid-to-late 19th century, they were almost extinct. Most of the bison that exist today live on private lands and their numbers are thankfully on the rise. However, the species is still considered near-threatened by the IUCN Redlist.
If we’re concerned enough to talk about the ethics of our own involvement in rewilding, then the ethical issue of animal welfare should be discussed as well, long before any action is taken to rewild our lands.
Viewing the Grand Tetons in Wyoming from their northern side requires getting out into the backcountry on foot or by horse. The Tetons on this day appeared a bit hazy due to wildfires in Montana, but nevertheless, they didn't fail to impress! This landscape used to teem with large North American megafauna, but during the early 1900s, many of those species were nearly lost. Several reintroductions later, most of the species lost during that time are re-established in healthy numbers.
Rewilding North America by Dave Foreman
Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick
In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
Further Reading (or watching in this case)
My husband and I recently returned from a long camping trip in the wilderness of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Since I grew up on the much tamer East Coast, until this trip, I hadn’t explored much of the Wild West. From my travels abroad, I knew that raw nature existed in other countries, like South Africa, but I was not aware it also existed in the States.
During our camping trip, we encountered countless songbirds, birds of prey, reptiles, rodents, and insects. But we also observed larger animals like mule deer, elk, moose, bison, marmots, beavers, skunks, bighorn sheep, bears, and coyotes! Many of these animals I had never seen in the wild. I also learned what the national and state governments and parks are doing in these states to maintain healthy ecosystems and ensure that both wildlife and people benefit. This gave me hope. While fragile, relatively untouched habitats still exist in the United States.
I was fully convinced before this trip that rewilding was an irresponsible and childish way of mitigating further species extinction. While I am still not convinced it is the best option available, I have softened to the idea that rewilding may be appropriate in certain instances and regions. Instances where species have not been absent long. Regions with fewer people and where there is a low development threat. That said, we need to approach this experiment with extreme caution. We are not working under laboratory conditions where things can be controlled. We are working under the unpredictable conditions of nature and that makes all the difference.