Monday, November 27, 2006

Rewilding rural North America

I've written a couple of times in the past about development in New York City, and the issues involved with trying to figure out how to increase the density of a city that already has 8 million people. But Science News this week has a feature article (subscribers only, unfortunately) that relates to an almost directly opposite problem, what to do with the empty parts of the country.
If one group of conservation biologists have its way... the western United States could... within the next century [be] filled with megafauna, including carnivores and herbivores imported from Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. These animals would repopulate the area where they lived until about 13,000 years ago, when the arrival of people in the region caused them to go extinct.
They call the plan "Pleistocene rewiliding", recreating the wild environment of the Pleistocene epoch which lasted from 1.8 million to 11,550 years ago. In what is now the United States,there were animals such as lions, Bactrian camels, giant Bolson tortoises, and Old World cheetahs, but the people who we now know as Native Americans apparently hunted most of those large animals to extinction soon after they crossed the Bering Strait at the end of the Pleistocene. There are large enough areas set aside as parkland and wildlife preserves that, in theory, similar animals from elsewhere in the world could be reintroduced to create an ecosystem that is more similar to how it used to be, many thousands of years ago.

The author of the Science News article notes only in an aside that there has been a similar movement to rewild parts of the West to the way they were only hundreds of years ago. Post-Columbian rather than pre-Human. The most appealing (to me) aspect of that idea is something I heard about several years ago -- bringing back the bison. And not just in small-scale ranches, suitable for renting out when you need to film Dances With Wolves, but in large numbers in vast restored prairies. The idea was originally proposed by several sociologists in 1988, in a proposal called Buffalo Commons, and it's happening almost by default. Just as people are moving to large cities like New York, Atlanta, and Phoenix, they're leaving the marginal agricultural land in the Great Plains of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. The idea of rewilding buffalo was to convert large areas of the plains, as people leave and agricultural irrigation becomes unsustainable, back to the way it was, without development or fences. Conservationists have been buying up old ranchland and converting it to buffalo land, and I've heard ideas that some Native American people might return to ranching buffalo too.

Think of the domestic ecotourism possibilities if both of these proposals pan out. Go to Western South Dakota, stay in a fancy lodge (serving buffalo steaks for dinner), then take a safari vehicle out to the reserve to watch wild lions hunt camels, and herds of buffalo that stretch to the horizon...



At 1:50 PM, Blogger Mona said...

Wow that is fascinating stuff. That would be nuts. My dream's always been to go on an African safari, and to think of doing it in South Dakota!


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