A wild world of a different sort

Back in October, I wrote a post about the idea of introducing large mammals (elephants, camels, lions, and so on) into the high plains of the United States (see Pleistocene mega-fauna — coming to a drive-thru safari park near you). The idea is to somewhat restore the pre-human ecosystem by bringing in mammals that went extinct at about the same time that humans arrived in North America. Elephants would fit into the niche that mammoths occupied, camels were native to North America, and lions would fill the role of large carnivorous cat.

The April 2007 issue of Scientific American will have an article on this concept. Here is most of an entry from Scientific American Blog (Jan 23, 2007):

Elephants roaming Montana? In our April issue, we are publishing an article by Josh Donlan of Cornell University on a bold conservation idea: giving a vast home in the U.S. West to endangered relatives of large animals that used to live in North America…

In the fall of 2004, a dozen conservation biologists gathered on a ranch in New Mexico to ponder a bold plan: the reintroduction of large mammals such as camels, elephants, and cheetahs to the western part of the U.S. Although most of North America’s big animals died out roughly 13,000 years ago, their close relatives have survived elsewhere, and the discussions focused on bringing these substitutes back to the western part of the U.S. to reestablish ecosystems that once thrived there. The author, Josh Donlan of Cornell University, and his colleagues believe that the effort would not only help to preserve threatened species in Africa and Asia, it would also be good for the land and the people in the American West.

Not surprisingly, when the proposal was published in scientific journals, it evoked strong reactions. Indeed, it may seem outrageous at first, but its proponents believe the plan makes sense on several grounds. The pressure that growing human populations put on wildlife means that many of the remaining species of large mammals in Africa and Asia will be extinct within this century. In some places in North America, in contrast, human populations are actually shrinking. Why not put some of the endangered African and Asian animals in North America, where they would be saved from extinction and would replace their close relatives that once lived there? The plan would have the added benefit of giving conservation biology – whose role has been mainly a struggle to slow the loss of biodiversity — a more positive cast. And bringing large, charismatic animals back to America should also bring cultural and economic benefits in the form of ecotourism.

According to the author, rewilding would move forward in a series of staged, carefully managed ecosystem manipulations, beginning with relatively small-scale experiments that examine the affects on North American landscapes of large herbivores such as camels and horses. If this proves to be a success, the experiments would move on to include elephants, and, finally, cheetahs and lions. The culmination would be a vast, securely fenced ecological history park covering thousands of square miles in the U.S. West, where horses, camels, elephants, and large carnivores would roam.

Here are a few of my observations:

  • Overall, I like the idea. It could potentially accomplish a number of things, including preservation of endangered species, and the revitalization of sinking economies through tourism.
  • An elephant is not a wooly mammoth or a mastodon. Can elephants survive a -30 degree winter?
  • It is interesting that they chose Montana as the potential site of this “experiment.” It is a rather empty place, and in that sense it would be suitable. But unlike many other parts of the American west, most of eastern Montana is privately-owned land. This project would require a high level of support from ranchers, and most of them look at this kind ecological restoration as a threat to their way of life.
  • This is not a new idea. About twenty years ago the idea of “The Big Open” or “Buffalo Commons” was floated around, mostly by easterners and university intellectuals (certainly not by eastern Montana ranchers). This didn’t involve importing elephants or camels, just the establishment of a million-acre or so wildlife area where bison could once again roam free, without internal fences. The editors of the Miles City Star (if I remember correctly) responded with a counter-proposal of “The Big Lake.” Why not, instead, build a huge dam in northern Idaho to recreate the Pleistocene glacial Lake Missoula? In the ice ages, the continental ice sheet over the northern Rockies created a giant lake that filled the valleys of western Montana. This would recreate an ancient habitat that has been lost, provide numerous recreation opportunites, and best of all (in this editor’s mind) drown that bastion of liberalism, the University of Montana, under hundreds of feet of water.
  • All grand ecology projects–whether fighting global warming, protecting wildlife, or regulation of toxic wastes–have political and economic aspects to them, as well as scientific and aesthetic. This is no exception. If this is a worthwhile project, then it needs to be done in such a way to address the concerns of those who live on the land.

Grace and Peace

Time Magazine 1987 article on The Big Open

Time Magazine 1990 article on The Big Open

Wikipedia “Buffalo Commons”

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