Pleistocene Rewilding: Restoring a Lost World in North America
Rewilding North America
The Pleistocene rewilding concept is as intriguing as it is controversial. At its heart it is an ecological movement with good intentions. In practice, it may be unrealistic and even dangerous.
Few people would argue that working to improve the environment is a bad thing. This is particularly true when a habitat or species has been negatively impacted as a result of human activity.
There is little doubt that people have caused a fair amount of environmental chaos in the Americas over the past several hundred years. Unfortunately, this is a reality of which our ancestors were woefully ignorant. Only recently have we come to truly understand the damage we have inflicted on the natural world.
As conscientious stewards of the environment, most people agree that we should seek to right these wrongs where we can.
However, some researchers say humans knocked the natural world of the Americas out of whack long, long ago. They say the plants, animals and even the very ecosystems which surround us today are missing something important, and it's up to us to bring it back.
A Lost Prehistoric America
When the first humans arrived in North America over 13,000 years ago they found a landscape teeming with megafauna. Huge mammoths moved in herds, much like their distant African elephant relatives of modern times. Massive predators such as the short-faced bear and Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat, stalked equally enormous prey. It was, in many ways, a North American version of what we see in Africa today.
But at the end of the last ice age many of these animals began to die off. Today, only a handful of the amazing mammals that once thrived in North and South America are left. Theories on the demise of the American megafauna range from climate change, to disease outbreak, to a comet or asteroid hitting the earth.
However, there is a strong chance that humans had something to do with it as well. Paleolithic humans were formidable hunters, and strong competition for existing Pleistocene predators. Could they have pushed many prehistoric species down the path to extinction?
Subscribers to the concept of Pleistocene rewilding believe the loss of the megafauna at the end of the last ice age left an ecological void, one which still plagues us today. They propose a drastic and fascinating solution to the problem.
The Rewilding Concept in Action
Pleistocene rewilding seeks to recreate the natural world of the Pleistocene epoch as closely as realistically possible. In some cases this means the expansion and reintroduction of extant species that have declined in numbers or have been driven out of their natural range.
More controversially, it means introducing proxy species such as the African elephant and African lion into the wilds of North America.
Rewilding has already occurred today, in some cases with a great deal of success.
- The California condor was on the edge of extinction in the late 1980s, with its wild population down to zero individuals. Thanks to a strong captive-breeding program the condor was saved, and eventually reintroduced to the wild in California, Utah and Nevada. While the California condor is still critically endangered, this is one example of how humans can step in and work to fix what we have destroyed.
- The plains bison once numbered in the tens of millions in North America, but by the late 19th century human hunting had obliterated them in the wild. The several hundred bison that remained were kept on private land, and the massive herds that once roamed the plains were gone. Eventually their numbers grew, and the nearly extinct plains bison was reintroduced to several wild areas around North America. Here is a Pleistocene herbivore recently driven to near extinction, saved and reintroduced to the wild.
- The gray wolf may be the most controversial example of a Pleistocene predator that had once seen a sharp decline. The gray wolf once roamed throughout most of North America. As Europeans began to colonize the land they saw the wolf as a threat, both to their safety and that of their livestock. As a result, farmers and ranchers exterminated the gray wolf throughout most of its range, leading to population decline. Today, the gray wolf has been reintroduced to some of its natural range. While in many cases this has been viewed as a success story, in some areas the presence of wolves is once again causing conflict with ranchers.
Expanding the Range of Important Species
The animals listed above, and many like them, have been threatened or endangered by recent human activity. It is easy to make an argument in favor of rescuing them, and even moving them back into their home ranges.
However, some advocates of rewilding argue we can do more to ensure the natural ecosystem returns to its intended state. In some cases this involves expanding the territory of dangerous animals.
- The grizzly bear once roamed throughout most of western and central North America. Today, it is mostly restricted to Alaska and Canada, and small, isolated populations in the lower 48 states. This predator was once a threatened species, but has seen a recovery in protected areas. There is discussion of reintroducing the grizzly in California and other areas.
- At one time cougar habitat ranged from the east to west coast of the lower United States, north into Canada and down to the tip of South America. Today, while the cougar is not a threatened species, its territory has been significantly reduced. In the eastern United States, aside from Florida, cougars are extremely rare.
- Elk once lived throughout most of the United States, but no longer exist in the wild throughout much of their historic range. These are large animals and, while not predators like the grizzy bear or cougar, still present a certain amount of danger to humans.
In these three examples we can imagine a huge array of potential issues should these animals be suddenly reintroduced back into the territory where they once roamed. Danger to people, destruction of property and the potential for unforeseen ecological issues are seen by many as fairly logical reasons not to pursue such a program.
Establishing Proxy Species
Here we get to one of the most fascinating aspects of the Pleistocene rewilding concept. In many cases, important megafauna that thrived thousands of years ago have no living equivalent in the Americas. The solution, according to some ecologists, is to bring in proxy species from elsewhere in the world.
- The African elephant would be introduced into areas where the Columbian mammoth once roamed.
- The African lion would take the place of the American lion.
- The Siberian tiger would serve as a proxy for Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat.
- The African cheetah would replace the extinct (and only distantly related) American cheetah.
- The Arabian camel would serve as a proxy for Camelops, the extinct North American camel.
- The range of the wild mustang (an animal that has already been reintroduced to North America) would be expanded as a proxy for the native but extinct North American horses of the Pleistocene.
It is important to note that some of these animals had ancient ancestors living in the Americas. During the ice age, the same Bering Land Bridge that allowed humans to cross into North America allowed other animals an egress into Asia. In some cases they or their relatives have continued to thrive until the modern day, while their American counterparts vanished.
Pros and Cons of Pleistocene Rewilding
It is fascinating to image herds of African elephants, camels and wild horses roaming the plains of North America. The thought of lions and cheetahs stalking prey is equally amazing and terrifying. On some level, these are things many of us would love to see, if only for the sheer exhilaration.
Restructuring the population of large megafauna not only impacts those animals and those they closely interact with. The effects would reverberate down to the lowest levels of the food chain. Even plant life would be impacted by the inevitable flux in the herbivore population.
According to proponents of the Pleistocene rewilding concept, these changes would be for the better, and result in a stronger, healthier ecosystem.
However, it is easy to see the point of view of the opposition as well. Such a project would have to be undertaken with extreme care and planning. The price of a mistake could be the loss of human life, or the inadvertent destruction of other parts of the ecosystem.
An Interesting Argument in Favor of Rewilding
How to Restore Prehistoric North America
For this idea to gain a foothold, many questions require solid answers. One key issue is: How would dangerous animals be contained to minimize the threat to humans and livestock?
For example, in some areas of Africa, elephants and humans are in constant conflict. How would such conflict be prevented should African elephants be introduced to North America?
If wolves make people nervous, how would be the public react to the introduction of a pride of African lions, or to a population of Siberian tigers? Would they ever support such a project?
The obvious and immediate answer is that this would have to occur in a contained nature reserve or park-like setting. But wouldn’t this be little more than a glorified zoo?
And finally, perhaps the most important question: Would this really help the environment, and restore the ecosystem to a healthier state? Or, would it simply create more problems than it solves?
We may know the answer sooner than later. Pleistocene Park is a controversial project currently underway in Siberia. On this nature reserve, Russian researchers are testing the Pleistocene rewilding concept and monitoring the results. There has been mixed results thus far, and the project has yet to be pushed to the extent of adding anything as exotic as an elephant or lion. Similar projects have been proposed in other locations.
Will we one day see elephants and tigers in America, roaming just beyond our backyards? It's an exciting idea, but a long way from reality.