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Rewilding America, Pleistocene Style

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Ever since Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, defining wilderness has not been easy. What often looks wild or "pristine" has probably been altered by humans over centuries. And in recent years scientists have tried to coax nature back to some concept of an original state by bringing back long-gone species, such as wolves, the American elm, or prairie plants.

Now a team of ecologists proposes a radical step to recreate the pre-human wilderness of North America by reintroducing large predators like those that lived 13,000 years ago.

This eco-team, writing recently in the journal Nature, proposes a gradual "rewilding" of the continent with today's relatives of the large mammals that lived during the late Pleistocene era. Such a step is seen as necessary to restore the empty ecological niches caused by eons of human activity. The pronghorn antelope, for instance, still runs as if it's dodging the extinct American cheetah; its evolution may benefit by restoring that relationship.

Some 60 or so species of lions, horses, camels, elephants, and other animals were made quickly extinct after the earliest humans showed up. Many of their relatives in Africa and Asia could not only act as modern ecosurrogates in North America, but those facing extinction might flourish in a new but familiar environment.

This idea may be practical for animals, but is it meaningful to Americans? Do ranchers really want cheetahs around? Can elephants be contained in large parks, as proposed? Can scientists even accurately recreate the old "wilderness"?

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