Rewilding Efforts Restore Ecosystems and Landscapes… But Not Without Pushback

When people consider environmental disasters and humankind’s effect on ecosystems, climate change and pollution are often the first issues mentioned. While climate change and pollution deserve our undivided attention, and are proven to damage ecosystems across the globe, unregulated hunting and hostility toward natural predators has also had a tremendous domino effect on other species in the ecosystem. In contrast to issues of climate change and global warming, there appears to be a simple viable solution to combat the extinction of top predators which keep ecosystems in balance. Rewilding efforts like the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone and Idaho in the 1990’s have yielded dramatic results including increased biodiversity and stable habitats. We should consider sponsoring more rewilding projects, while also understanding the complexities involved in reintroducing these wild animals.

Due to overhunting and poisoning from ranchers protecting their livelihood, gray wolves were once on the brink of extinction. Without the wolves, deer and elk populations skyrocketed, resulting in overgrazing and barren valleys. The barren valleys had a dramatic effect on the habitats of many other species. Birds and beavers struggled to build dams and nests due to a lack of undergrowth. Bears and raptors struggled as a result of their prey’s habitat issues. The lack of undergrowth also contributed to increased erosion and more chaotic river flows. The more unpredictable river habitats also affected fish populations. The diminishing wolf population had a tremendous trickledown effect that influenced nearly all living things in the region.

The effort in Yellowstone and Idaho represents one of the biggest rewilding success stories. The wolves reigned in the deer and elk populations, helping bring back trees and shrubs that would help birds and beavers build shelters. The wolves ate coyotes, allowing other small predators to thrive on prey that was previously dominated by the coyotes. The increased undergrowth decreased erosion, stabilizing river flows and forming permanent pools which became new habitats for fish and other aquatic species.

Though rewilding has the capacity to transform the ecosystem, it is important to note that nearly half of predator reintroduction efforts fail. It is crucial that government agencies and those who work with these carnivore populations understand the subtleties that affect these projects. The three main criteria to consider are: sufficient protected land where these carnivores are native, abundant prey populations, and humans who tolerate these predators. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the right regions to reintroduce these predators. The more humans develop the land, the more fragmented the protected lands are. Fences limit animal ranges, humans compete for prey and kill these carnivores that threaten their agriculture, livestock, or their children’s safety. The hardest aspect of rewilding is promoting human tolerance. In many of these potential rewilding areas these big carnivores are seen as either trophies, enemies of human civilization, dangerous to society, or all the above. For reintroduction to be successful, we must accept our shared role in these ecosystems. This means people must recognize the ways in which rewilding depends on cooperation from those living in the reintroduction region.

As humans, we view ourselves as the dominators of the wilderness. This perspective prevents us from recognizing the tremendous effects our interactions with other species have on the entire ecosystem. We must change our perspective from dominators to members of a shared environment by making concerted efforts to educate the population on the interconnectedness of the environment and the devastating effects of overhunting. Informational campaigns that focus on both the science behind the interconnectedness of our ecosystems and the morality and ethics surrounding the situation would be a good start. Park rangers and other officials who look after our protected lands should also play a big role in protecting these reintroduced animals from human harm. Despite the constant battle between man and nature, there is hope that these rewilding projects can help mend the damage done by past generations of overhunting and disrupting the ecosystem’s balance. Hunting does not need to stop on the whole, but as humans we must recognize our role as predators just like the wolf. There is a healthy amount of predation and then there is overhunting. For rewilding efforts to be successful, hunters and ranchers must also be tolerant of the repopulation of potentially dangerous predators.

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