Elephants in Kansas: The Changing Landscape of Wildlife Conservation


Last month, a mountain lion was killed by a car in Milford, Connecticut. The eastern mountain lion has been extinct since the 1930's, and the cat, which had wandered all the way from North Dakota, was Connecticut's first in over 100 years.

Even as suburban moms rushed to fence in their backyards, conservationists rejoiced over the evidence of nature's resiliency. No surprise: The movement to reintroduce large animals, including carnivores, to their traditional ranges has been gaining momentum for over a decade.

This movement began in earnest in 2005, when a young Cornell University biologist named Josh Donlan proposed that scientists relocate elephants, lions, cheetahs, and other endangered African mammals to the middle of the American corn belt.

The crux of Donlan's article, Re-wilding North America, is that our continent was once home to a plethora of large mammals that resembled the fauna of contemporary Africa. Camels, mastodons, and lions thrived on this continent for millennia. Yet this biodiversity abruptly vanished around 13,000 years ago, due at least in part to the arrival of human hunters in North America. Replacing those extirpated species with modern proxies would help restore America's grassland ecosystems to their natural balance, draw an influx of tourism revenue to middle America, and also protect cheetahs, elephants, and other endangered African species from extinction.

Anyone who has seen Jurassic Park understands that recreating extinct ecosystems comes with its share of risks, and images of hyenas rummaging through Des Moines dumpsters and elephants flipping SUVs is enough to stop short the checkbook of any philanthropist who would fund Donlan's venture. Plenty of pundits expressed skepticism, or worse, at the idea.  

But Donlan's paper offered a valuable service: Re-wilding North America moved the conservation movement to the left. Wildlife conservation had long emphasized disaster prevention — finding the most endangered species around and keeping them alive as long as possible. This philosophy produced some successes, such as the recovery of bald eagles, but it also inefficiently lavished resources on species that had no real chance of rebounding in the wild. Defeats outnumbered victories, morale plummeted, and, as Donlan put it in 2005, "Environmentalists are easily caricatured as purveyors of doom and gloom, to the detriment of conservation."

Josh Donlan didn't create the notion of rewilding (Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!, coined the term in 1990), but he did capture its zeitgeist. In the last decade, scientists have begun to think proactively and ambitiously; instead of sticking fingers in the leaky dike, they've started to restore entire ecosystems.

Rewilding projects have sprung up all over the world. None of them involve anything quite so elaborate as relocating African fauna in the United States (although a Pleistocene Park does exist in Siberia), but all share the same essential goals: to reinstate large animals to their traditional ranges and improve ecosystem function as a result. The central tenets of rewilding are land protection, carnivore restoration, and the connecting of fragmented habitats — the first because big animals need lots of space; the second because predators are crucial to maintaining ecosystem balance; and the last because populations must disperse and mingle to stay healthy.

North America's most notable rewilding effort is the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative, an attempt to link 2000 miles of Pacific Northwest habitat and allow wolves, bears, and elk to reclaim their historic migratory routes. Caroline Fraser's 2009 book Rewilding the World describes a number of similar restoration projects, including Área de Conservación Guanacaste in Costa Rica, Gondwana Link in Australia, and the European Green Belt. The particulars of these efforts differ, but they share a common goal: to go beyond protecting endangered species by restoring vast ecosystems to their pre-human state.

So far, Donlan's Pleistocene Rewilding project hasn't moved so much as a camel to middle America. But in many ways it's already succeeded: By shattering the conventions of wildlife management, it has changed the priorities of biologists and liberalized the conservation movement. After all, when the idea of lions in Nebraska is on the table, permitting a cougar in Connecticut seems downright moderate.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons