Posted by: Dan | October 28, 2006

Rewilding North America

cougarReposted, from last November, when I attended a lecture by Dave Foreman, founder of the Rewilding Institute and author of the book Rewilding North America. The book offers a positive, proactive and hopeful vision of conservation. It’s a bold vision, but backed by solid research in conservation biology. It’s also echoed as of late by two articles I’ve seen recently on mountain lions in North America, and the roles they play in ecology as top-down regulators and highly-interactive “keystone” species. Those articles can be found on ScienceDaily and Audubon magazine’s fieldnotes and Earth almanac sections.

Anyway, the repost:

The Rewilding Institute – Last night, I went to the latest installment of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Monday seminar series, to hear Dave Foreman speak. Foreman is the founder of the conservationist think tank, The Rewilding Institute, and spoke unapologetically on caring about nature for its own sake.

Starting off by describing the 6th great extinction of Earth’s history, caused by man and occuring in stages, starting about 40,000 years ago, accelerating around 1500 A.D., and receiving an even greater boost around 1980 A.D., he focused on top-down regulation of ecosystems and the food chain. One of the first things that we as humans historically do when we enter an ecosystem has been to kill off the carnivores at the top of the food chain, and this drastically effects biodiversity and the ecosystem.

Foreman gave two examples of this phenomenon: timberwolves in Yellowstone, and sea otters off the Aleutian Islands. In the first case, elk grew lazy and their population boomed when wolves were erradicated in the early 1900’s, destroying vegetation and driving beavers and other animals from these damaged habitats.

Further, without large predators like wolves, smaller, “meta-carnivores” such as cats and foxes were able to freely decimate songbird populations. The other case is similar, where the lack of sea otters due to the fur trade allowed sea urchin populations to boom, destroying the local kelp forests which a large variety of smaller animals depended upon for safety and sustainence. In both cases, the return of these predators is restoring the old ecosystems, and biodiversity is returning as species driven out by habitat change return and balance in the food chain is restored.

From this discussion of “keystone species” such as timberwolves and sea otters, he went on to explain the Rewilding Institutes focus on the three “C’s”: Carnivores, Cores and Connectivity. By now the carnivores part was explained by the “keystone species” discussion, and he went on to discuss habitats in the form of core protected parks and refuges, and keeping this system of refuges interconnected by preventing habitat fragmentation by roads and suburban sprawl. Foreman cited a large body of scientific evidence in making the assertions that cores and connectivity are essential in maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health, and that indeed, Europe is way ahead of us here in the States on implementing such a methodology for protecting wildlife at “Ecologically Efficient” population levels.

At this point, he offered examples of interconnected publicly and privately preserved lands in NM and AZ, and the effectiveness of highway underpasses in connecting mountain lion subpopulations in the hills surrounding Anaheim, CA, before proceeding to outline a broad plan on the continent-scale, creating “Mega-linkages” along the Pacific NW, the Continental Divide, Appalacia, and Canada’s Boreal Forests, to boost populations of wolves, mountain lions, lynx, etc.

What Foreman spoke most eloquently about, however, was a sober approach to protecting wildlife for its own sake, in such a heart-felt manner that I had to admire his dedication and vision.

Afterwards, taking questions, Fitz (Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick, director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology) asked about the politics of Foreman’s rewilding initiatives. Foreman responded with interest in discarding the “Environmentalist Stereotype” that has driven many moderate conservatives away, including hunting and fishing recreationalists, and suggested a “Take a Republican out to lunch” recruiting style. Also of note, he didn’t bring up the topic of Donlon et al, which argued for introducing African megafauna (elephants, lions) into North America, which has been linked to the Rewilding Institute. I kinda liked the thought of introducing cheetahs, but I definitely don’t think talking about lions and elephants would do much to win politically.


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