Gore-tex raincoats, plastic Ray Bans, smartphone GPS apps have no place here. This is a world where each organism lives or dies by its wits and evolutionary reflexes. Is there any place on earth still undisturbed enough, we wonder, to truly qualify as wild?
Across the globe, there’s a movement afoot to reclaim territory for wildness to regenerate. And in some cases, preventing further disturbance may not be enough — we as a species have wreaked such havoc, some feel it is our duty to use our powers of manipulation to reverse some of the harm. Apex predators, for example, which have long been banished by overhunting from large geographic areas, are now being carefully reintroduced with added protections and support. Rivers, long ago rerouted or dammed for agriculture or industry, are being laboriously re-trained to their ancient courses. Wide overpasses, covered not with asphalt but with soil and trees, are being engineered over wide highways to reduce road kill and partially undo the habitat fragmentation caused by major roads.
The Rewilding Institute (TRI) is on the forefront of this struggle to restore wilderness areas for historically native animals and plants. Their mission: integrating traditional conservation methods with cutting-edge conservation biology to rehabilitate large ecosystems. Their website is a hub for a network of groups working on similar goals of healing and protecting North American landscapes, and they provide a wealth of links and documents for public education in support of their cause.
TRI prioritizes the protection and reintroduction of large carnivores, many of whom have been long feared and attacked by humans who felt these predators threatened their communities or livestock. Research supports the argument that apex predators are crucial for ecosystem integrity in ways previously unimagined. Species such as big cats and large birds of prey regulate populations of smaller mammals, for example, with big repercussions. Grazing or burrowing herbivores, when allowed to expand unchecked, cause new imbalances between plant species, due to greatly accelerated seed-spreading of specific small-seeded varieties, and also increased culling of selected seedlings. Trees, undergrowth, and wildflowers decline in biodiversity, and a foothold is sometimes offered to invasive species which further the crowding out of vulnerable native plants. Large predators have the potential to prevent this cycle.
Previous conservation thinking has often ignored the role of large predators — intuitively, it’s easy to see these powerful creatures as agents of destruction whose role is to kill, not heal. Bringing back the wolf, or the panther, may actually bring back balance. Historically, the removal of large carnivores appears to lead almost inevitably to a wave of extinctions and an oversimplification of the ecosystem. When coyotes were eliminated from a grassland in Texas, for example, a single species of rat proliferated and managed to out-compete eleven other previously thriving burrowing-rodent species in a single year, causing their near-complete disappearance. Ironically, the coyote had served as the protector as well as the devourer of these vulnerable small animals. In that case, as in many others, no one guessed the consequences until it was too late.
The permeable landscape
Our maps are dotted with little green “nature reserves”, but all too often, these function as static islands, isolated and cramped. Large predators, in particular, depend on ranging freely and widely, and person/animal conflicts are often inevitable when their territory is hemmed in by human development on all sides. An individual animal or group can survive adequately in a limited space, but it is only by allowing true landscape permeability (the ability to safely explore beyond one’s home territory) that a threatened population can re-establish itself securely over a broad range. Only then can the gene pool become strong through the mixing of different family groups.
Animals also need safe access to life-giving resources such as lakes and rivers. Automobiles kill up to 1.5 million animals each year in the United States, many of whom were simply making a risky dash for an essential drink of water. Rewilding advocates innovations such as wildlife bridges and underpasses, which are flanked with fences intended to “funnel” animals toward the safe crossing, discouraging the deadly highway risk. In areas where wide swathes of land are occupied by large-scale agriculture or other wildlife-unfriendly industry, a habitat corridor can be established which links wild areas together, allowing animals to explore and propagate in new territory. Only by providing opportunities for this type of natural expansion can we break the cycle of dependence upon frequent human intervention, in which a nature reserve comes to resemble a heavily managed zoo.
Is it realistic? Is it effective?
We’ve lost so much, can these efforts make a dent in the vast devastation and long list of extinctions? Working in the conservation field can resemble a series of heartbreaks, as for every step forward there can be several painful losses: habitat lost to development, species lost to poaching, ecosystem health lost to pollution and climate change. Rewilders concede that in many cases, all we can do is give threatened animals a place to shelter from the human storm, waiting for the day when circumstances might favor a more sustainable landscape renewal, where true species regeneration becomes possible. But bigger dreams beckon: what if we take bold steps, acting on our faith in the lost megafauna of a distant past?
Branches of the Rewilding movement have gone out on a limb. Some scientists endorse ambitious projects to recreate a Pleistocene-era landscape on the plains of North America, introducing animals such as lions, elephants, and cheetahs as stand-ins for extinct native megafauna like mammoths and saber-toothed cats. A relative of the cheetah did roam this continent once, as did the jaguar, though we now associate such animals with far away — perhaps “wilder” — lands. One project aims to populate large uninhabited swaths of the Great Plains with imported African animals, as their local counterparts are unavailable. Opponents of this plan say we should let scarce resources for conserving these animals concentrate where they belong, in Africa. Funding may do more good there, where such animals are already established. The intensive management needed to help these creatures survive on our shores would be expensive and impractical, and critics say it would end up as an unrealistic “theme park”
Yes, there once was an American Lion roaming the plains, preying on bison and wild horses. It was much larger, and likely more terrifying, than the modern African lion. Since its extinction during the Pleistocene era, though, our landscape and our ecosystems have undergone tremendous change, both evolutionary and technological. Although it is very likely that human over-hunting led to the American Lion’s disappearance, some question whether well-intentioned human manipulation can right that ancient wrong. To bring the African or Asiatic lion into this new world, so transformed beyond recognition, could be a set-up for disaster, with unforeseen consequences including extinction of smaller species, introduction of disease, even ecosystem collapse.
If we’re going to bring back big mammals, let’s use existing native species, not stand-ins for extinct ones, some advocate. But wolves and grizzlies are no strangers to human controversy either. The presence of large carnivores changes the behavior of all potential prey — including humans. It gives the landscape an edge of danger which can energize our awareness and reactivate our instincts — it can also awaken our anxiety. North Americans who live in the vicinity of predators such as cougars, grizzlies, or panthers often have strong feelings about the danger potentially posed to humans, including children, and are less receptive to arguments about the predator’s essential role.
Often, we like the idea of a truly wild landscape — but not in our backyard. And the more we sprawl and reproduce, the more of this continent is covered coast-to-coast in human backyards. A recent book calls it “Man Swarm”: our overpopulation is devastating the non-human world, and yet our priorities remain staunchly pro-human-welfare, often ignoring the inconvenient facts of our dependence upon the health of our ecosystem. Our fate is inextricably bound up with the fates of the lynx, the coyote, and the Bolson tortoise.
Call it “the call of the wild”. Most of us have been aware, at moments, of some primitive core within us which longs to break free of the urban grid, losing ourselves deep in the woods, out upon the sea, or high in the mountains. Writers such as George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life, have given this wordless urge a voice. What ails us, often manifesting as a host of mental and physical health complaints, may be our complete displacement from our ancestral ecosystem. When we spend all day moving between air-conditioned boxes and vehicles, eating soft food which arrives in serving-size plastic boxes and sleeping on sanitized memory foam, some primal part of us may feel deeply confused. Time spent in nature, allowing sensory immersion in the sounds, smells, and visual cues our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have experienced, is more and more often prescribed therapeutically.
When we are ready to seek the wilderness, it’s harder than ever to find. Our public parks are often so safe and well-groomed, they can feel like leafier extensions of the suburban landscape. There’s no necessity to prick up our ears or hone our peripheral vision, though sitting quietly in the woods can reward us with birdsong, and the busy scurry of chipmunks, rabbits, or squirrels: in well-traveled parks, these creatures are virtually tame, and have lost much of their evolutionary wariness. We take it for granted: this is what North American woods are like. But they weren’t always like this — our ancestors knew an edgier relationship with the animal world, where survival (ours and theirs) was negotiated day-by-day. For most of us, it’s a long and occasional trip to Yellowstone where the herds of bison and the rumor of grizzlies still thrill. Once there, most tourists never leave the paved walkways skirting the edge of the wildlands. That may be a good thing: there isn’t room for all of us in the backcountry, because the backcountry’s borders are so cramped.
By supporting large-scale rewilding efforts, we begin the process of bringing the wildlands back closer to our backyards, expanding the edges so we can all venture within. Once there, we can start to rediscover the lost parts of our instinctual selves. We all want our children to be safe, but we also want them to explore, to learn to navigate rough terrain, discover unfamiliar bugs, and identify trees by the feel of their bark.
Free-roaming wolves may scare us, and may cause occasional livestock casualty. But the loss of the wolf is scarier still. When we exclude a top predator of the wilderness food chain, we set in motion a cascade of losses: biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, the wild wolf within each of us. Between cultural norms and corporate powers, rewilders are swimming against a strong current.
We can all jump in to the depth we’re comfortable with. Start by getting yourself out there, remembering what it feels like to tromp through long grasses, dead leaves, and muddy puddles. Support the conservation that makes you passionate. Make your home garden a habitat area. Remember, all of this was once wild, and it’s not too late to reverse the age-old human war on wildness.