Rewilding, the Long Way ‘Round

A high jeopardy of extinction comes with territory. Islands are where species go to die.
― David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo

Tell them, I know what they did, and I’m on my way. And if they ask you who I am, tell them I came the long way ’round.
— Dr. Who, Heaven Sent

Rewilding1Conservation aimed at restoring and protecting wilderness, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species. has a bad rap. It’s generally thought of as crankish and impractical—other than, perhaps, if you have, say, a failed nuclear reactor and the area has been taken over by nature

The idea of turning back the ecological clock has otherwise been difficult to pull off, which helps explain why the example most of you will know best is the same one2I have this general theory of anecdotes, which is that when everyone retails the same one to prove a rule, it’s generally because there is no general rule, just that appealing anecdote.: bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The trouble with this story, however, is that it isn’t the unalloyed success it’s been made out to be, despite the endless stories on the topic. Doing this sort of thing properly requires more than simply bringing back a single apex predator; it requires the disappearance of humans from wild ecologies. 

Because animal habitats are increasingly fragmented physically by humans, but also by sound. Many animals are acutely sensitive to humans, even if merely recreating, and it turns a troubling fraction of their habitats into islands. And after more than fifty years of studying island biogeography, we know without doubt that more islands, however created, means fewer viable species. 

That is why it is interesting when we see a natural experiment withdrawing humans from landscapes, especially if it doesn’t involve crashing a Soviet nuclear reactor. Current events are causing that sort of experiment right now, as roads become quieter, factories close, and people hunker down, all in the space of weeks. I saw a coyote confidently walking the street in front of our house mid-morning the other day,, and I’m hardly alone, as these tweets show. People are spotting mesopredators in places where they’ve never seen them before, and at times they’ve never seen them,

It’s too soon to say that rewilding is underway, and this is a roundabout way of getting there, but there has been a recent spike in people remarking on mesopredators in their neighborhoods. Depending on how long the current experiment in re-connecting ecological islands continues, the consequences will be worth watching.


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