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A walk on the wild side: 7 fascinating experiments in rewilding

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George Monbiot gets in touch with his rewilding side at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

George Monbiot gets in touch with his rewilding side at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

George Monbiot begins today’s talk by recalling a time he was “ecologically bored.”

“We evolved in rather more challenging times than these, in the world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws,” explains Monbiot, an investigative journalist who found himself deeply dissatisfied returning to the United Kingdom after years reporting in the tropics. George Monbiot: For more wonder, rewild the world George Monbiot: For more wonder, rewild the world “We still possess the fear and the courage and the aggression required to navigate those times. But in our comfortable, safe, crowded lands, we have few opportunities to exercise them without harming other people.”

In his search for a solution to this stupor, Monbiot discovered his current passion: rewilding.

It’s a term, coined by activist Dave Foreman and broadened by Michael Soulé and Reed Noss in the 1990s, that Monbiot explains has two meanings. The first involves the mass restoration of ecosystems through attention to “trophic cascades” — the ecological processes that start at the top of a food chain and tumble down to the bottom, affecting the entire ecosystem in the process. The second involves the rewilding of places humans live—restoring some of the fauna that we’ve wiped out through hunting and habitat destruction.

“Paleoecology—the study of past ecosystems crucial to an understanding of our own—feels like a portal through which you may pass into an enchanted kingdom,” Monbiot says. “The story rewilding tells us is that ecological change need not always proceed in one direction. It offers us the hope that our silent spring could be replaced by a raucous summer.”

Below, a few experiments in rewilding, drawn from Monbiot’s talk and elsewhere.

  1. Bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
    Yellowstone National Park had become overrun with deer, which grazed away the vegetation dramatically. For years, biologists like Dave Foreman suggested a solution: bringing wolves back to the park, as the last ones were killed off in 1926. In 1995, wolves were finally reintroduced to Yellowstone, and the effects were dramatic. The wolves brought the deer population down to a sustainable population — but more importantly, they radically changed the behavior of the remaining deer. These deer started to move more often and avoid places in the park where they could easily be trapped, which in turn grew thick with vegetation. This allowed birds and beavers to move in, and the beavers’ dams became habitats for otters, muskrats, ducks, fish, reptiles and amphibians. The wolves also killed coyotes, which allowed for more rabbits and mice, which in turn boosted the populations of weasels, hawks, foxes and badgers. Meanwhile, ravens, bald eagles and bears fed on the carrion that the wolves left. In fact, even the river patterns in the park changed: the regenerating vegetation stabilized the riverbanks, which yielded less to erosion and took on straighter water flow. “The wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park—this huge area of land—but also its physical geography,” Monbiot explains in his talk.
  2. Saving whales in the southern oceans
    As a second example, Monbiot describes an unexpected way in which whales are a lynchpin of the ocean ecosystem — through their excrement. Whales feed at great depth, but come up near the water’s surface as they produce large fecal plumes. Up there, sunlight allows photosynthesis to take place, which results in the growth of phytoplankton. Zooplankton, which feed on phytoplankton, prosper in turn; and they feed fish and krill—which feed whales. Not only that, but whales’ movements push phytoplankton—which absorbs carbon—back up toward the water’s surface, where it can continue to survive and reproduce. According to Monbiot, at their usual historic populations, whales were probably responsible for sequestering tens of millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. So the management of whaling, and whale conservation by groups like the International Whaling Commission is, in this sense, a form of rewilding.
  3. Restoring trees in Glen Moriston, Scotland
    Dundreggan, a 10,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands, is currently overgrazed by deer and sheep, which have decimated the local vegetation. In an ongoing, decades-long process, the organization Trees for Life is reforesting the area. “Our vision is to turn Dundreggan into one of Scotland’s finest native woodlands, abundant in wildlife, and protected for generations to come,” the website reads. The organization’s long-term goal is to restore the native forest of oak, hazel, ash and Scots pines to over half of the land. By 2058, they expect to see animals like the red squirrel, European beaver and wild boars return to the area.
  4. Bringing beavers to mid Wales
    The Cambrian Wildwood, a Wales Wild Land Foundation project, aims to restore Blaeneinion, 75 acres of land in mid Wales. The initiative, which launched in 2008, is reforesting the area with broadleaf trees, creating orchards. They are also introducing beavers to the area. “Alongside the reforestation of roughly 50 acres of pastureland, the project will incorporate subsistence organic food-growing, beekeeping, rearing small livestock and poultry, propagation of productive local fruit varieties, mushroom production, teaching components, social events, aquaculture and much, much more,” the website promises.
  5. A jaguar reserve in Sonora, Mexico
    It sounds strange, but it’s true — jaguars were once a fixture of the southern United States and northern Mexico.  The Northern Jaguar Project works to restore habitats for jaguars and other threatened and endangered species in the area. Currently, an estimated 80-120 jaguars inhabit their Northern Jaguar Reserve in northeastern Sonora, which was established in 2003. In 2008, the reserve raised funds to purchase more land and the reserve is now a stunning 35,000-acre ranch where jaguars roam undisturbed.
  6. Revegetating the White River National Forest. Colorado
    The White River National Forest is a 2.3 million acre park in the Rocky Mountains. The Wilderness Workshop, founded in 1967, aims to keep large swaths of it truly wild — free of roads that fragment wilderness, free of human crowds that can disrupt animals and free of logging, mining and gas drilling which can harm the ecosystem. While much of their work is about defending the wilderness as it stands, their Habitat Restoration Program is about peeling back the effects of past damage and letting the land heal itself. The Program’s projects work on erosion control, weed removal, revegetation and, of course, reintroduction of native plant and animal species.
  7. Bringing trout to South London
    In 1805, the River Wandle was described as “the hardest worked river for its size in the world.” Ninety mills used the river then and, until very recently, it was routinely mowed of natural features to keep its water moving quickly. The last trout was caught in the river, which joins with the Thames, in 1934.  In this article, Monbiot describes The Wandle Trust, which aims to restore the river by cleaning it out, redirecting its flow and restocking it with fish. Now, shrimp, insects and trout flourish in the river … even in proximity to the big city. “Astonishingly in view of where it has come from—historically and geographically—it looks in places like the kind of chalkstreams you would expect to find flowing through some of the most bucolic landscapes in England,” writes Monbiot.