Re-Wilding the West: Conservation Biology

Pacific Creek Grand Teton National Park

There’s a fresh, strong breeze blowing in the field of conservation and it is redefining conservation itself:  conservation as not just protecting land, water and species, not just playing defense against venal politics and the juggernaut of human growth and development, fighting this battle here, that battle there.  No.  This is conservation going for what it really wants:  1) healthy, ecologically functioning landscapes with all species and habitats represented in effective numbers; and, along with that, 2) people, part of the picture actively involved in restoring the health of the land and its many species inhabitants.  The strength of this hopeful vision is built on a growing consensus in solid cutting-edge science devoid of political influence, a science in the service of a deep affection for the natural world and all its inhabitants, not just the one, us.  It combines two major strategies that are now coming into their own here in the early 21st century – conservation biology and ecological restoration.  In this two-part set of articles, we will look more in depth at these two emerging strategies.

These two strategies aren’t really that complicated.  To simplify just a little, conservation biology teaches the three ‘C’s:  to establish an ecologically healthy functioning landscape we need:  1) large core wild areas, many of which are already established; 2) movement corridors that knit the cores together so the species can roam, spread and intermix; and, 3) crowning this landscape fabric, keeping the other species checked and balanced, are the top carnivores.

Cores are true wildlife refuges, the incubators and source areas for native biodiversity.  We need more of them, spread geographically and ecologically, but we have a great start with our awesome history of national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and other nature preserves.  “National parks are the best idea we ever had.” – Wallace Stegner, 1983.

Owyhee River Canyonlands

We used to think cores alone were enough to preserve nature.  But with the help of a discipline called Island Biogeography we’ve come to realize they aren’t.  Animals need to be able to roam and spread far and wide to propagate and share their genes.  Safe, permeable landscapes and corridors are how they do that.  Instead of leaving our national parks and other core areas as isolated islands in a sea of lethal, hostile development, we need to connect them into a usable matrix of compatible lands.  Adolescent male animals especially need to move, find new mates and establish new territories, and corridors allow them to do so.  In some cases this means we have to retrofit the landscape, at highway crossing barriers for example.

Learning to live again with top carnivores is also key to re-wilding.  Not only would we preclude an experience of deep wildness (‘self-willed’ land), we simply cannot recreate wholesome healthy ecosystems without them.  Top carnivores perform the irreplaceable function of top-down regulation of the ecosystems they are part of.  Without them, mid-sized animals, including deer, coyotes and other ‘meso-predators’ increase dramatically in numbers, which can have devastating effects on other plants and animals in a cascading effect.  For example, not enough predators, and deer populations explode.  Too many deer leads to the over-browsing of the plants they eat, as well as excess car accidents.   Top-level carnivores ‘right-size’ things.  We can co-exist with them in a mutually respectful way, and we can figure out how.

The eco-revitalization of the land with carnivores includes not only the ones we have spent so much time and effort getting rid of – wolves, bears, and large cats – but also wild trout and salmon; whales; otters and other members of that family; and owls, hawks and other raptors.  These top-level species are sometimes called ‘umbrella species’:  protecting and restoring them protects many other species that share the same area.

Dunar Valley Mamma Grizzly Bear and Cub

Of course the issue of the reintroduction of some carnivores will require a long social conversation, carefully monitored and defined experiments, and gradualism.  Centuries – even millennia – of fears and negative attitudes need to be allayed, and that takes time, but early experimental results, for example with wolves in Yellowstone and the North Woods, are very promising.  People sometimes speak of the question of balance, but it’s important to remember that most of these species have had their former ranges and numbers reduced by 75-95% as over-dominant mankind has expanded by the millions bringing our roads, livestock, pet cats and dogs, and appetites for land, lumber, minerals, food and water with us.

Thoreau, in his Journals, wrote: “I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of spring, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages…”   He described his native Massachusetts, even in the 1840’s, as an “emasculated” landscape with many of its greatest species deleted.

We can co-exist, and by doing so we will immeasurably deepen our psychologies and enrich our lives.

Conservation biology is of course more complex than I have laid out here, but these three ‘C’s lay out a basic scientific scaffolding for re-wilding our continent.  There are many regional implementation efforts already underway in the West (Yukon to Yellowstone; Arizona Wilderness Coalition; Sky Islands; etc.), East (Southern Appalachians; Maine to Adirondacks; etc.), North (Canadian Rockies); and South (in Central America’s Paseo Panthera project), and on larger and smaller scales.  These projects are often instigated by non-profits but are increasingly supported by progressive elements in the various federal and state agencies.  Collectively they show great promise.

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