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.

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