The first time we bumped into the term “rewilding,” our thoughts were, “Hubris?” and then “Jurassic Park!”
The term, which seems to date to the 1990s, is actually more modest than that. It refers to setting aside land and building corridors for wildlife, particularly predators like wolves, who are nearly worshiped by some and still detested by others who feel their property is threatened.
This doctrine of rewilding has led to some extravagant ideas, such as one floated in 2005 contending that, since original North American species like mammoths, ground sloths and saber-toothed cats are lost, they could be replaced with imported elephants. That same year, a separate proposal, equally serious, held that lions and cheetahs as well elephants should be introduced to the Great Plains to recover an ecological balance.
The usual object in North America is to erase some of the marks of settlement by Europeans in the New World. East of the Mississippi, that’s a tall order. In New England, you would have to raze towns, tear up roads and thickly reforest. By the time you were halfway done, there would be no room for humans – and you would be doing it at a time when environmentalists are promoting urban density as an essential way to fight climate change.
West of the Mississippi, we have another chance. There are places where you can almost squint and see 1804, the year Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis. In our wisdom and hardship, our development has been more scattered. The good news, finally, is that the West is harder to subdue.
One of the landmark events in rewilding occurred 25 years ago this week, when gray wolves were trucked down from Canada and released in Yellowstone National Park. It was the moon shot of conservation. Wolves do run free in Yellowstone today, and there are benefits in ecology and commerce, but opposition to wolves outside the park’s boundaries has only grown. The wolf has become a symbol of federal overreach.
The American Prairie Foundation, a private nonprofit, has been dreaming of something more audacious, short of lions and tigers, for years. Formed in 2001, it started buying grassland for conservation in sparsely-populated northeastern Montana, acquiring ranches to stitch together, replacing cattle with bison. When it is complete, if that day comes, it will comprise 3.2 million acres, replete also with wolves, brown bears, elk, pronghorn antelope and prairie dogs. It would be bigger than Yellowstone.
Some have objected to APR because it has wealthy donors, including finance industry executives who “helped steer big investments in oil, gas and coal,” NPR recently reported. Such people had a role in upholding “the structure of global capitalism” and degrading the same environment they are helping to conserve, an expert on philanthropy told the network.
This is a race to the bottom. Every consumer also has had a role in upholding capitalism and degrading the environment. Can we conserve nothing?
The complaints from ranchers who haven’t sold to APR are more honest: It aims to destroy their way of life, they say. That is exactly right. On this one part of the continent, the reserve aims to go back to a time before ranching or cowboys. When European-Americans came to that section of Montana as homesteaders in the 1860s and 1870s, their object was to clear and settle the land and make it support them. Hardly anyone thought of conservation. Lots of people hoped to strike it rich.
Here is that second chance.