Some 13,000 years ago, gigantic animals roamed what is now the United States. Is it not enough to mourn the loss of these animals? Should we attempt to “resurrect” them via programs like the Pleistocene Rewilding?
What is the Pleistocene Rewilding?
The Pleistocene Rewilding concept was the brainchild of a geoscientist named Paul S. Martin. Martin is perhaps most famous for his “Overkill” theory. He believed that the first settlers in North America overhunted the existing megafauna, such as mammoths and mastodons, to extinction.
Martin went on to propose the idea of “rewilding” North America with Pleistocene proxy animals. For example, the American mastodon is obviously extinct. However, the Sumatran elephant, which is an extant relative of the mastodon, still lives in Indonesia. Thus, breeding populations of Sumatran elephants on American soil would supposedly help fill an ecological niche.
“…the future of North America’s reserved lands needs to become a broad and magnificent debate that attempts to deal with the heart of the problem: ever since the extinction of the megafauna 13,000 years ago, the continent has had a seriously unbalanced fauna.” ~ Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples
Pretty cool huh? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be driving around the U.S. and stumble upon a family of elephants? Or Grant’s Zebra, playing the role of the Hagerman horse? Or even the Siberian tiger, in place of the American lion?
Rewilding: Pro-Animal…or Anti-Human?
Well, as you might expect, there’s a catch. In the August 18, 2005 edition of Nature, Josh Donlan and eleven other authors proposed the creation of “ecological history parks” which would “cover vast areas of economically depressed parts of the Great Plains.
And there’s the rub. If you’re going to import new megafauna to the U.S. as part of a crazy scheme to restore an ancient ecosystem, you need lots of land to do it. Also, all manmade structures should ideally be removed in order to support free migration. And barriers should be built to keep people out of the rewilding zone. Indeed, many of the scientists who support rewilding wish to implement it with as little human interaction as possible.
“It could be argued that taxa have an inherent moral right to continue evolving free of human intervention, or even that Earth as a whole has a right to demonstrate its fullest possible evolutionary potential. It could be argued that, as the species responsible for the extinction of so many taxa, humans have a corresponding responsibility to attempt their restoration when feasible.” ~ Paul S. Martin, Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America
But why stop at the Pleistocene epoch? Why not go further back in time? Well, at its core, rewilding is a strange, almost anti-human concept. It seeks to restore ecosystems to a pre-human or at least a pre-European state. In other words, the arrival of humans upset the pristine (and mythical) balance of nature and now we must seek to fix it.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Lost in the mix is a very important question. What’s so great about ancient ecosystems anyway? In truth, there is very little, if any, scientific evidence that pre-human ecosystems were superior to the ones that we enjoy today. Many ecosystems do just fine with both native and non-native plants and animals. They’re just as productive and they contain just as many species.
And yet, conservationists continue to seek the preservation or in the case of rewilding, the resurrection, of historical ecosystems. Part of this is practical. Ecosystem management requires some kind of baseline, something to shoot for. Otherwise, why manage it in the first place? The other part of it is blind faith. Many conservationists just know that historical ecosystems are desirable without a shred of proof to that effect.
All in all, the North American Pleistocene rewilding project is a fascinating idea. If private land owners want to lend their property to Pleistocene Parks, more power to them. However, they should know that such parks will be impossible to maintain (and here’s the ultimate irony) without human interference. Nature doesn’t exist in a steady state. It’s always changing, always evolving. The only way to keep it from doing so is with lots of human interference. And if that’s the case, then what’s the point of returning to a pre-human ecosystem? Why not just let nature evolve on its own?
“Nature is never in balance. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of balance. When an ecological system experiences a disturbance, whether it’s a forest fire or an ice storm or something else, it never comes back in its original form. Instead, the system evolves in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.” ~ David Meyer, The Mythical Balance of Nature