Restoring The Earth Requires Corridors, Carnivores
Land use is one of the most important issues of our time. Decisions made within the next five years will have a dramatic impact on the state of the planet forever. In some areas, it’s a showdown between conservation and development. For endangered species, it’s a matter of life and death.
Biologists concur that the ideal conservation model is one that protects apex predators. Protecting the top predators means protecting their habitat and the entire food chain. It’s an ideal that has fallen to the wayside in most regions during the wholesale exploitation of the planet’s natural resources. We are now facing an extinction crisis and a climate crisis. We can tackle both by restoring ecosystems on a grand scale.
Rewilding is comprehensive, often large-scale, conservation effort focused on restoring sustainable biodiversity and ecosystem health by protecting core wild/wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and highly interactive species (keystone species). The goal of rewilding is to mitigate the species extinction crisis and restore healthy and sustainable ecosystem function in areas that require little or no human intervention or management.
The Rewilding Institute (TRI) believes that most of the world should be wild. Unfortunately, extinction is the overarching crisis of our time. Humans have an ethical obligation to protect and restore wild Nature. Rewilding leaders maintain that it is not enough to preserve remaining pieces of wild Earth, but is also necessary to restore big wild connected areas — complete with top predators, including wolves and great cats and sharks, who keep ecosystems bountiful and beautiful.
“Rewilding, in essence, is giving the land back to wildlife and wildlife back to the land,” said John Davis, TRI’s executive director.
“It is restoring natural processes and species, then stepping back so the land can express its own will. Top carnivores are not just pretty faces or effective icons for endangered species campaigns. They are central players in healthy ecosystems.”
Rewilding at any scale first requires identifying wild — or nearly wild or potentially wild — core areas, determining what habitats are present, what species are present, and assessing the general health of the ecosystem. More difficult is to determine if there are pollutants or poisons present, or if any species have been extirpated, and whether any habitable wildlife corridors exist connecting with other cores. Determining the history, ownership, and politics of the land.
Human developments on critical habitat complicates the situation. In some instances, relatively simple actions such as enacting legal protection, stopping inappropriate hunting or fishing or harvesting, removing barriers such as fences or roads or dams, and allowing the area to rewild on its own through benign neglect are sufficient. In some cases, ecological engineering, physical (re)construction, planting of depleted or extirpated native plant species, and (re)introduction of depleted or extirpated native wildlife species–especially highly interactive species such as beaver or wolf–may be required.
Thanks to the good work of conservationists around the world, rewilding is gaining momentum:
- Rewilding in Europe has succeeded in restoring Beavers to parts of Scotland, Wolves to many parts of mainland Europe, and Lynx to Iberia;
- River liberators have removed dams and reopened salmon runs from the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers in Maine, the Elwha River in Washington, the Eklutna River in Alaska, and hundreds of other places;
- Wolves have been famously restored to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and from there have recolonized as far away as northern California – to the redounding benefit of riparian forests and the many creatures who depend upon those lush ecosystems;
- Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles are now numerous again in much of North America, since the banning of DDT many years ago;
- The imperiled California Condor is soaring again over some of its old southwestern strongholds.
- Cheetah and Lion restoration efforts have succeeded in some parts of southern Africa;
- Rewilding Ibera is systematically restoring extirpated species to those vast Argentinian wetlands, with Pampas Deer, Tapir, Collared Peccary, Giant Anteater, and Green-winged Macaw already back out there and Jaguars being raised for release;
- Tallgrass prairie and savanna naturalists have restored many sites in the Midwest US;
- the American Prairie Reserve in eastern Montana is being pieced together by wildlands philanthropists and repopulated with Bison;
- Just hours north of Wall Street, in a landscape largely denuded a century ago by timber and railroad companies, state land protection has allowed the return of Beaver, Fisher, River Otter, Moose and other species. The forests are approaching old-growth stature again. The return of cougars and wolf are the next step.
Caroline Fraser’s book Rewilding the World offers many more examples, as does Rewilding Earth. The book that best summarizes priorities for continental conservation and restoration where the idea was hatched is Dave Foreman’s Rewilding North America.
The Institute envisions a day when Gray Wolves and Grizzly Bears have connected habitat from Mexico to Alaska, when Pumas have reclaimed their homelands East and West, when salmon and other fish swim freely up and down our continents’ rivers, when the oceans are teeming with whales and sharks, and when all native species regain natural patterns of abundance and distribution. More specifically, and recognizing their far-reaching benefits, we aim to restore keystone species – like wolves, big cats, beavers, prairie dogs, salmon, eels, whales, hemlocks, and chestnuts — across their natural ranges.
The Institute defends all public wildlands for their highest and best uses: as wildlife habitat, ecosystem providers, and quiet recreation grounds. It also works to expand wilderness and park systems, encourage wildlands philanthropy, and it rewards private landowners for conservation efforts.
TRI endorses the Half Earth proposal of protecting at least half of the planet’s total area of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in ecological reserves. It also believes that we should manage the ecosystems more fairly and more compassionately.
The action plan depends upon human restraint, which hasn’t happened much in North America in the post-Columbian age. Leaving land and large predators alone won’t be easy.
TRI brings the science of conservation biology into the wildlands and wildlife conservation movement. Through public presentations, educational materials, and a website, The Institute explains the need for rewilding on a continental-scale.
For the last several decades, conservation groups, agencies, and academic biologists have worked to restore wild species to their native habitat. The return of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park is perhaps the best-known success. However, these recovery efforts have been scattered, piecemeal, and largely uncoordinated. They have, in short, lacked a vision.
Rewilding is necessary wherever the balance of ecosystem function has been disrupted. Where sufficient wild lands are not protected, connectivity is compromised and biodiversity is threatened.
MegaLinkages, for example, are the centerpiece of a continental conservation vision. The Rewilding Institute and the Wildlands Project are working together with other groups to design and implement a North American Wildlands Network made up of core wild areas and wildlife linkages. The Rewilding Institute emphasizes the big picture of the continental network along Four Continental MegaLinkages (Pacific, Spine of the Continent, Atlantic, and Arctic-Boreal), while the Wildlands Project works on the design and implementation of detailed regional wildlands networks, which will make up the continental network. The MegaLinkages will identify large core wild complexes and areas of landscape permeability connecting them that are suitable for recovered populations of large carnivores.
Highways, other barriers, and fracture zones for wildlife movement fragment even the wildest regions of North America. The Institute encourages the identification of the most serious barriers to wildlife corridors. It then builds overpasses or underpasses where wildlife can safely cross. For example, The South Coast Wildlands Project worked with other conservation groups, government agencies, and the California transportation department (Caltrans) to identify priority barriers for mountain lions in southern California. Caltrans has removed an on-off ramp on the Riverside Freeway and converted it to a mountain lion underpass to link up habitat cut by the freeway. The Cascade Partnership in Washington has raised tens of millions of dollars to buy tens of thousands of acres in Snoqualmie Pass along I-90 to restore linkages for wolverine, lynx, and other species.
TRI Fellow, Monique DiGiorgio, has organized workshops throughout Colorado to find ways to reduce collisions between automobiles and wildlife. Similar programs are underway in other states.
TRI and other experts are developing comprehensive visions for the recovery of highly interactive species in North America. Wolf and mountain lion (cougar) visions have been prepared. Other visions are in development for species ranging from jaguar to prairie dog to grizzly bear.
Recent fossils and current field research show that jaguars are not only tropical and subtropical cats, but lived in temperate habitats throughout much of what is now the United States. Today’s northernmost breeding population of jaguars (about 120 total animals) is in Sonora, Mexico, little more than 100 miles south of the Arizona border. This population is the source for the jaguars that have been photographed in Arizona and New Mexico recently. Led by Mexican biologists and the Mexican conservation group Naturalia, the Northern Jaguar Coalition is raising money to buy ranches in the core of the jaguar range so the big cats will be safe from poaching. One 15,000-acre ranch has been purchased and is under management by Naturalia.
The Institute is developing guidelines for using ecological criteria to select and design Wilderness Areas and other protected areas so that they better protect wild habitat and wildlife movement permeability. TRI has also drafted priority reforms for public land management that would help rewilding and continental-scale conservation.
TRI was originally envisioned as a continental-scale effort in North America with protection of large wilderness cores, suitable habitat corridors for wildlife movement, and recovery of large carnivores. Over the ensuing three decades, Rewilding has been used to describe national-, regional-, state-, and local-scale efforts. The term is now common in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and more.
Read more about the Rewilding Institute and the importance of rewildling.