Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Wild Idea

Home, home on the range. Where the deer and the elephants play...

This may not be "news" to most conservation biologists, but I am going to assume that the majority of the American public missed the wild idea put forth by a group of scientists nearly six years ago. The idea: to "re-wild" North America with the big mammals that once roamed much of the continent before humans set up camp roughly 13,000 years ago, a time known as the late Pleistocene.

Well, the idea was not to try to resurrect now-extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, camelop, and American lion (yes, we once had our own lion), but rather to introduce their closest living relatives, borrowed from Africa and Asia. (Although, there is a team of Japanese and Russian researchers that recently announced they hope to bring back the mammoth through cloning in five years time).

Not surprisingly, the idea sparked heated debate among conservation biologists, a debate that continues today, at least in some academic circles and graduate student seminars. While it is questionable whether Pleistocene re-wilding could work as intended, and whether conservation biologists should spend their energy and resources on the strategy, this post does not delve into the pros and cons of re-introducing lions, cheetahs, elephants, camels, etc. to American wildlands (I suggest reading the linked articles for such information).

Instead, the reason I bring it up here is the value of the idea as a stab at a more optimistic approach to conservation. Even its authors presented it as an "optimistic alternative" to the dominant conservation paradigm, which they perceive as a "hands-off approach to wilderness preservation." And sometimes you just need a wild idea to get the conversation going.

I am not promoting re-wilding North America with Pleistocene animal relatives, but one of the promises of re-wilding with existing native fauna is its demand for more proactivity and participation in ecological restoration.

Already there are examples of re-wilding attempts. In Chile's Patagonia region, Kris and Doug Thompson are re-wilding almost two million acres of land damaged by a century of sheep farming, restoring it back to a healthy grassland teeming with native herbivores, such as the endangered guanaco. In an interview with conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, Kris emphasized the driving force of passion and the power of getting involved in protecting a place that is special to you.

While not everyone is capable of restoring land in the same capacity as the Thompsons, any kind of active involvement on a broader scale, including involvement by people other than conservation biologists, can help to create a culture that is passionate about restoring ecosystems and protecting wild places. Participation begets investment, and investment begets real, positive change.


  1. This is a fascinating idea, Jenny. Could you explore it further. Try to imagine how we might live in a land populated by, say, mastodons? What would they eat? What would be the predators? Could we co-exist? I think you could really have some fun with this.

  2. Yeah this is very interesting. I don't know what the consequences of reinserting wildlife like Mammoths and American Lions to the United States are (for some reason I see a lot of danger in that), however, rehabilitating devastated or ravaged lands that could once again be used for farming or something like that sounds like a very productive idea.