"Rewilding" Landscapes

A recent article by Joshua Rapp Learn in the Smithsonian Magazine explores how "rewilding" landscapes to return them to a natural state might sometimes be ineffective and even harmful. 

As Learn writes in "It Might Be Impossible to Turn Back the Clock on Altered Ecosystems," "some people seem to think that ecosystems are fixed in time—with the ideal wildlife habitat dating to the pre-industrial age. To fix the problems we may have since caused via introducing invasive species or removing native wildlife, we just have to turn back the clock. But ecosystems aren't like that. Humans have been altering habitats for thousands of years. Now some experts are beginning to think that rewilding is not only impossible but possibly harmful if ecologists aren't able to untangle the many variables in these new, human-made landscapes."

With Point Reyes National Seashore in California as a case study, Learn explores the impact of human attempts to return ecosystems to their natural state. Daniel Simberloff, a professor of environmental science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, points out that these efforts often have unintended consequences: "Wolves reintroduced to parts of the United States and Europe have lowered the number of grazers through predation, which results in more berries growing for grizzly bears. But they’ve also hybridized with dogs that are now ubiquitous in these areas, irrevocably changing the gene pool of some wolf populations. An extreme case in North Carolina has seen the fledgling experimental red wolf population hybridizing with coyotes, worrying since it’s the only population of wild red wolves in the world. If this continues in an extreme form, the species could be bred out of existence." 

Learn concludes that "often, the human footprint in a given area is so large that it’s impossible to restore the original ecosystem. Instead of rewilding, we may be better off focusing efforts on so-called novel ecosystems, Simberloff says. The latter include everything from the plants and animals living on or around old human buildings to the wildlife adapting to cities, farms or other factors of the Anthropocene. They could even be engineered to provide humans with desired services."

To read the full article, click here