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ECOS 40(6): Rewilding from an ocean away


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A North American’s perspective on European rewilding

I must admit, I look with envy at European rewilding groups. Though the term ‘rewilding’ was coined by legendary North American wilderness leader Dave Foreman, and though the United States and Canada have some of the most visionary and effective conservation and restoration groups in the world, rewilding seems to have caught on more in Europe than in North America. Moreover, predator recovery is advancing more rapidly in Europe than it is in the wilder but socially more polarized United States. As Wolves recolonize much of Western Europe, the Western US faces a backlash against Wolf recovery. This is in part because Wolves are effectively seen as liberal Democrats – as symbols of federal government intervention in local affairs. Canada and many Central and South American countries may have retained their native predators more widely than the US, but most places where they have been eradicated, they are not yet returning.

Cautious applause

At The Rewilding Institute (TRI) we see ourselves as keeper of the Rewilding flame; as a forum to help keep the concept of rewilding true to its wild intent. Some of us (especially Dave Foreman) fear that ‘rewilding’ has come to be used in too many contexts where is has little to do with large-scale wildlands protection and recovery.

The essence of rewilding, some of us believe, is “giving the land back to wildlife and wildlife back to the land”. By this pithy definition, most of work of Rewilding Europe and kindred groups does qualify. By the even more succinct definition of rewilding used by former Wild Earth editor Tom Butler  “helping Nature heal” then European rewilding work looks even more solid.

The concept of rewilding seems to have caught on faster in Europe than in North America, perhaps because Europe needs it more. In much of the western United States, northern Canada, and mountainous parts of Mexico, the land still seems plenty wild, and therefore re-wilding seems unnecessary. Nevertheless, I believe rewilding applies even in these still remote regions, if only because they are mostly unprotected and viewed by industry as future resource exploitation sites. Rewilding northern Canada, for instance, might not require reintroducing any species, but it would require that we colonizing people in a moral sense give that great land back to wildlife and to native tribes.

As editor of Rewilding Earth (which so far, two years into existence, has mostly been about rewilding North America), I welcomed a critique of rewilding work in Europe by standard-bearing Mark Fisher, but have also welcomed more favorable looks at European rewilding efforts by several visitors. I hope all of these keen analysts will write more and be answered more, in Rewilding Earth and elsewhere. Dialog and respectful debate can help us hone our tactics and improve our rewilding results.

A theme of rewilding in both Europe and in the eastern United States is land abandonment, allowing rewilding – or wildlife comeback, as it is called on the Rewilding Europe website – through benign neglect. This looks to be a helping factor in Western Iberia, the Danube Delta, Central Apennines, Rhodope Mountains, and other flagship areas of Rewilding Europe. It has also been the salvation for many wildlife species in much of the Appalachian and Adirondack Mountains of the eastern United States.

A thorny question that arises, however, with some rewilding projects in Europe is the re-introduction of large herbivores. Here the original large herbivores, particularly Aurochs, were driven to extinction centuries ago, and semi-wild near-relatives are now being released in some rewilding sites as surrogates.

To me, this seems appropriate, even if it falls short of full rewilding, provided the herbivores can be naturally governed by native predators, particularly Wolves. However, if the introduced large herbivores must be held in check, to protect vegetation, by shooting, then I’d tentatively suggest the project not be seen so much as rewilding, but perhaps as reviving that part of the landscape. Thus, the term ‘rewilding’ need not – and probably should not – encompass the whole realm of restorative work.

A beaver in Split Rock Wildway – a wildlife corridor in eastern Adirondack Park, northern New York
Photo: John Davis

Glancing across the sea

Enough generalities; what projects seem wildest and most thrilling to this distant onlooker? For ecological and aesthetic reasons some of us love big toothy animals and many North American rewilding advocates are most impressed by projects that include the reintroduction of or recolonization by large carnivores. Reed Noss and Michael Soule outlined the scientific case for top carnivore recovery in their classic paper “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation” in 1998. Dave Foreman has argued persuasively that large carnivores test our generosity as a people. So, to some degree, Wolves, Pumas, and Grizzly Bears have become the litmus tests for rewilding work in North America.

If we apply this test to European rewilding efforts, your work looks surprisingly good! Europe now has more Wolves than does the United States south of Alaska. (And in Alaska, we must again and again fight inane proposals by benighted government and game officials to permit aerial gunning and den poisoning of Wolves.) Moreover, Romania alone has more Brown Bears than the contiguous United State has Grizzly Bears. Much of the carnivore recovery you’ve seen in Europe has been fortuitous, not actively conducted, but that does not at all diminish its importance to and consonance with rewilding. Indeed, many, perhaps most, of the rewilding gains in North America have likewise been fortuitous, not planned, as lands have been abandoned by farmers or other users and allowed to regrow natural vegetation and regain native animals.

The Rewilding Visions depicted on the Rewilding Europe website (rewildingeurope.com) are refreshingly ecocentric. The paintings depict wildlife in natural settings – in welcome contrast to the scenes often presented by US-based conservation groups, which all too often these days seem to think people must be at the center of any conservation scene or vision. A casual observer might surmise that Europeans more readily see the intrinsic beauty and value of other species than do Americans. Again, I confess some envy. In North America, we are not yet using art nearly enough to promote rewilding visions.

Lynx recovery work in parts of northern Europe and Iberia has been impressive. In North America, Lynx reintroduction has succeeded in Colorado, but failed many years ago in New York’s Adirondack Park, and has not been attempted other places where it ought. Europe’s Lynx (Lynx lynx) apparently is a bigger animal that does eat ungulates sometimes, whereas the Canada Lynx (Lynx canadensis) preys primarily on Snowshoe Hare and secondarily on squirrels. Thus, again arguably at least (and I hear that taxonomists like to argue), Europe’s Lynx comes closer to fitting the definition of a top carnivore than does North America’s and European groups have done more to restore their Lynx than we have here.

Projects in Europe involving release of analogs to the vanquished large herbivores, but not involving restoration of their predators are perhaps the most controversial. To call these rewilding does challenge the definition. Personally, I think these large-herbivore introduction efforts are often a good idea, but I don’t think I’d call them ‘rewilding’ unless at least they involve truly native species, not merely ungulates of domestic origin cross-bred to regain many of the characteristics of their progenitors. Ideally, these projects should involve reintroducing the native predators, atop which hierarchy will usually be Wolves.

The Southern Carpathians, Rhodope Mountains, Velebit Mountains, Central Apennines, and Swedish Laplands rewilding projects seem to this outsider among the fullest and truest to rewilding ideals. The Rewilding Vision descriptions would have run comfortably in the early influential journal Wild Earth (and would be welcomed now in Rewilding Earth). Much farther toward the manipulative end of the rewilding spectrum are the polder “rewetting” projects of the Odin Delta and small parts of the Netherlands, the latter most (in)famously represented by the Oostvaardersplassen. David Schwartz wrote a thoughtful piece on this project for Rewilding Earth; and it left me thinking: whether or not this is rewilding at all. It is a worthy venture, which gives a little land back to some of its original inhabitants – and controversially some new ones – and it helps us understand how to do rewilding better elsewhere. Perhaps much of the value of part restoration/part novel ecosystem creation projects like this, is that they draw natural history and ecology lessons from areas once robbed of their integrity.

European rewilding efforts also seem to me to be ahead of most North American rewilding efforts in recognizing the potential of Nature-based enterprises, including wildlife-watching, to foster restoration economies and build support for reconnecting people with wild places and reintroducing missing species. Most of the rewilding projects described on the Rewilding Europe website, for instance, promote businesses that seize the opportunities that rewilding presents, including wildlife safaris and serving local food for ethical eaters. These enterprises should help draw young folks into the rewilding movement through the economic opportunities they present.

I applaud European rewilding work also for its great attention to waterways. Projects like Rewilding Danube and Rewilding Odin are largely about restoring aquatic ecosystems, and most European projects I’ve read about give attention to aquatic wildlife, often including beavers, as well as terrestrial. North American rewilding work, it seems to me, does not give equal attention to watery realms. Patagonia’s film Dam Nation and ongoing work by American Rivers (americanrivers.org) have helped accelerate dam removal efforts in North America, but Dam Removal Europe (damremoval.eu) seems to be advancing faster than any comprehensive dam removal effort in my country.

On the other hand, I see little mention in European rewilding literature about road removal. Roads are to the land what dams are to rivers: major barriers and killers. In part because of the Wilderness Act in the United States – which rightly names roads as the antithesis of wilderness – and the abiding presence of large road-free areas in Canada, our conservation and restoration community pays close attention to roads, fighting them when proposed in wildlands, striving to close unneeded ones that fragment our back-country. Maybe this happens equally in Europe, but I don’t see much talk of it.

A fisher in Adirondack Park, one of the species nearly eradicated by early Euro-American settlers, now thriving in protected parts of the Adirondacks and Northern Appalachians
Photo: John Davis

Lessons from North America

Perhaps I should close with a few observations from the rewilding work of the groups I serve, particularly TRI. Whether these efforts have lessons relevant across the Atlantic or elsewhere in the world, others can decide.

TRI’s work to restore Mexican Wolves (Lobos) across the Southwest has met limited success – but much more success than had we not been there. Mexican Wolves now number about 120 in the wild, and inhabit perhaps a fifth of their original range. Were it not for rewilding and wildlife defense groups like the Center for Biological Diversity advocating for these top carnivores at every opportunity, they’d probably be extinct? Restoring them throughout their native range and in viable numbers will require countering the disproportionate power of the ranching industry which runs livestock on the vast bulk of US public lands in the arid West, to the lasting damage of native ecosystems and loss to American taxpayers. It will also require reform of the wildlife management agencies which are currently dominated by “hook and bullet” interests.

Our work to restore Pumas to an expanding Eastern Wildway is only slowly gaining support, and these great cats are still effectively locked into southern Florida. Reconnecting and protecting more wildland will depend on creating strong incentives for good stewardship of private lands. Getting Pumas reintroduced to suitable habitats will require increasing public support and reforming wildlife management agencies, especially at the state level.

Our Adirondack Wildways work is in some respects easier, for New York’s great Adirondack Park, where I live, is a century into one of the greatest rewilding experiments ever undertaken. Most of the species reduced or eradicated in the 19th century returned in the 20th, including North American Beaver, River Otter, Fisher, and Moose. This rare conservation model has been purposeful in the sense that lands were deliberately demarcated for protection, but it has been fortuitous in the sense that most of the missing animals have returned on their own, without active reintroductions. Species recovery for aquatics in northern New York, however, has been much more limited, largely because far too many man-made dams remain in place.

Often, then, we find in both North America and Europe, if we let Nature reclaim lands and waters, extirpated wildlife returns. This is not always the case, though, as Pumas remind us. With Pumas, much more than with Wolves, long dispersals are mainly undertaken by young males, seldom by females. So a cruel paradox we face in the eastern US is that local human residents often feel that if Pumas return on their own, fine; but don’t you dare let the government force them on us! The Pumas we see in the US East north of the rare Florida Panther population in the south of that state are usually lonely young males, looking for love in all the wild places. Pumas are unlikely to soon recolonize eastern wildlands north of Florida in sufficient numbers to find each other. If we don’t actively restore Pumas (and ideally, Wolves, too), they may not return before grave damage is done to Eastern Deciduous Forests from over-browsing by unnaturally large and sedentary White-tail Deer populations.

With diadromous fish, though, sometimes merely removing obstacles allows amazing recovery. Stories abound of salmon and trout reclaiming old spawning grounds within years of dam removal. This would likely be true for American Eel, too, were they not being overfished in the ocean. With migratory fish, as much as with wide-ranging carnivores and ungulates, we need to understand their life histories to know whether rewilding will require active reintroduction, or whether removal of obstacles and reconnection of natural habitats may suffice.

Parting thoughts

A humble (if expensive) proposal I’d offer as editor of Rewilding Earth is that we rewilding advocates in North and South America on one side of the Atlantic, and in Eurasia and Africa on the other side, as well as in Australia and other lands and waters, ought to be creating partnering programs such as the sister-city movement of years past. Exchanges and mutual visitation programs would help us learn from and be inspired by each other’s work.

Somehow, east and west, north and south, we must engage many more folks in rewilding work. In North America, conservation has for too long been a pastime for middle-age and old white people. We need to be more diverse and more attractive to young activists of all colors, as well as to retired folks of all types who have time and resources to share. Of all the conservation and environmental themes out there, rewilding is the boldest and most exciting. In North America, and perhaps other continents, we rewilders must more vigorously spread that courage and excitement.

In sum, from the perspectives of some of us in the land where “rewilding” was first labeled and promoted, but where it is gaining ground only slowly, rewilding efforts in Europe are so far at least as advanced and effective as those in North America. Some of what passes for rewilding in Europe strains the original definition, and might better be seen as ecosystem enhancement projects, but whether or no they are true rewilding projects, most of them seem good, life-affirming ventures. May rewilding and other healing projects expand and multiply around the world, and grow into a restoration economy.

Sources

Rewilding North America, by Dave Foreman

Saving Nature’s Legacy, by Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider

Continental Conservation, edited by John Terborgh and Michael Soule

Rewilding the World, by Caroline Frazier

Spine of the Continent, by Mary-Ellen Hannibal

Feral, by George Monbiot

Big, Wild, and Connected, by John Davis

The Carnivore Way, by Cristine Eisenberg

Abundant Earth, by Eileen Crist

Rewilding Earth, www.rewilding.org

Rewilding Europe, www.rewildingeurope.com

Dam Removal Europe, www.damremoval.eu


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Cite:

Davis, John “ECOS 40(6): Rewilding from an ocean away” ECOS vol. 40(6), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-406-rewilding-from-an-ocean-away/.

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