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Lions, Elephants to Roam the U.S. Plains?

Blake de Pastino
National Geographic News
August 17, 2005
 
Cheetahs prowling Texas? Elephants roaming Oklahoma? You just might live to see it, if a bold new plan to save endangered species becomes reality.

A team of U.S. biologists and conservationists is proposing a plan that's equal parts Jurassic Park and Jumanji.

Their goal is to restore giant wild mammals to North America, like those that roamed the continent during the Ice Age—mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and the extinct American cheetah, among others.

Since those animals have long been extinct, the scientists propose repopulating the U.S. with the creatures' closest living relatives—such as lions, cheetahs, elephants, and camels.

Using a strategy called rewilding, the conservationists suggest using these and other endangered animals as stand-ins for long-gone Ice Age mammals.

To ease the transition, the team recommends introducing the animals on private ranches or nature preserves, particularly in the Great Plains states where they say human populations are thinning.

But the ultimate goal, the researchers say, is to create a massive "ecological history park," where the large mammals could wander freely, much like their Ice Age counterparts did some 13,000 years ago.

The team's proposal appears in the current issue of the journal Nature. We recently talked with its lead author, Cornell University biologist Josh Donlan, to discuss the plan to make America wilder.

How to you propose to rewild North America?

Our vision begins immediately and spans the coming century. It's conceived as a series of carefully managed manipulations, using closely related species as proxies for the large vertebrates that were lost in North America 13,000 years ago.

It includes animals such as the Bolson tortoise—a tortoise that can reach over a hundred pounds (45 kilograms) that was once widespread across the southwestern United States 13,000 years ago. It was almost driven to extinction most likely by overhunting by early Native Americans, and it's now critically endangered, restricted to a small part of northern Mexico.

So [we propose] reintroducing the Bolson tortoise to Big Bend National Park [in western Texas]—a great example of a potential site that would be appropriate.

Fast forward fifty or a hundred years. The ultimate vision is of a vast ecological history park that contains free-roaming elephants, predators, and other large mammals that all, we hope, would serve as proxies for the large vertebrates that were here 13,000 years ago.

What species do you propose reintroducing?

We talk about horses and camels. Horses and camels originated in North America, and there were multiple species here 13,000 years ago. Currently, there are European horses in many landscapes in America, but they're often viewed as pests. We argue that they could be used as analogs for the Pleistocene horses that were once roaming North America, as can the camels.

Then moving on to potential conflict, let's talk about the cheetah. The pronghorn [an antelopelike animal in the western U.S.] almost certainly evolved the way it did due to predation by the American cheetah. The American cheetah is closely related to the African cheetah.

So one can argue, What would be the benefits of introducing the African cheetah back to the American landscape? It could restore those lost interactions between the pronghorn and the cheetah, and at the same time help to halt the extinction of the African cheetah, which is highly endangered and very likely will face extinction in the next century.

Then we move on to talk about the ultimate rewilding, and that is elephants. Thirteen thousand years ago there were five species of elephants in North America. Could the Asian elephant fulfill the same ecological role that elephants played here 13,000 years ago? We know from long-term research in Africa that elephants are a key species that play a very important role in the ecology of the African landscape.

All of the animals that we are proposing as proxies are available as captive animals [in zoos and game parks] in North America. By no means will we be taking animals from Africa over to North America.

This all has to be research driven, done one step at a time. Because there are some huge obstacles to talking about reintroducing large predators, like lions. So there's going to have to be a fairly substantial attitude shift that comes along with this vision, for the public.

How would you go about creating that attitude shift?

We're in the very early process of all this. This paper is a vision paper. And it's going to be a long, long road, both scientifically and culturally. It'll take a lot of work. But it's important [for people to understand] that lions and elephants roaming freely on the landscape is [only] a long-term vision.

What would the benefits of all this be?

The ecological justification is restoring these important species [and their] interactions. We know that these animals play a really important role in how they interact with the environment—through predation, for example and how they maintain biodiversity. A lot of that was lost 13,000 years ago in North America when we lost most of our large mammals.

Plus, in terms of evolution, by having these large mammals on another continent besides Africa and Asia, we're preserving the evolutionary potential of large mammals.

We also lay out what we see as the potential for economic justifications, the most obvious being ecotourism.

And then the aesthetic justification is that humans are fascinated by large mammals. This is very clear, and it extends back to the Pleistocene as well. We see it in cave art from early Americans, right up to today in the names of the cars we drive and the names of our football teams. So there might be a lot of unexpected benefits for further reconnecting humans with large mammals.

In your proposal you talk about cheetahs hunting pronghorn and elephants grazing Great Plains grasslands. Won't rewilding radically alter the U.S. landscape?

This falls under the questions that we don't know the answer to. We know that elephants and large predators play an important role in the ecosystem. But that system has been lost in North America.

We don't know the consequences of reintroduction—whether they're quote-unquote positive or negative. But those questions can be answered through research-driven, experimental reintroduction.

How do you respond to criticism that you're playing God?

We argue that our proposal is based on a couple of facts that are very clear. One is that now the Earth is nowhere pristine. Our economics, our politics, our technology pervade every ecosystem.

So we argue that even though the obstacles and risks are substantial, we no longer accept a hands-off approach to wilderness preservation. By default or by design, we're going to basically decide what kind of world we want to live in.

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