by J.C. Hallman
A radical conservation idea intrigues – and frightens – an un-wild world.
In the 1970s, my hometown was an experiment, a roofless biosphere, a suburban bubble that hadn’t popped and sprawled quite yet. Wilderness surrounded the civilization we had cut from the California chaparral. The basic sales pitch of suburbia claims that the “marriage of town and country” makes for unity, and although this might have been genuinely meant in the days of Frederick Law Olmstead and the Garden City Movement, it was hogwash by the time it filtered down to our innovative San Diego technoburb. As a boy, from my school bus, I could look up into the surrounding hills and spot coyotes leering down with their trickster’s scaled-back dignity. But by the 1980s, rampant growth had caused a flop, and our sterile civilization had laid siege to the last scattered pockets of nature. The coyotes vanished.
A few years ago I became interested in the work of a group of scientists who wanted to bring the coyotes—and many other animals—back. “Pleistocene Rewilding,” a radical conservation proposal initially set forth in Nature magazine, noted that North America during the late Pleistocene period had been home to a menagerie of animals that included ground sloths as tall as giraffes, diprotodons like one-ton wombats, tortoises the size of Volkswagen beetles, and an array of lions, horses, elephants, and bears, all of which suddenly went extinct about thirteen millennia ago. Just as surely as the suburbs had squeezed out the coyotes, the Pleistocene Rewilders (the Nature paper had twelve coauthors) claimed that humans had a hand in the extinctions and that the whole continent had been left ecologically bereft as a result. Long story short, Pleistocene Rewilding would repair what had been wrought.
The paper caused a minor frenzy, first in the media (with the authors landing on Good Morning America and finding themselves the subject of clever headlines like “Where the Wild Things Were” and “Beasts of Both Worlds”), then among academics who hated it (“obnoxious” and “nuts” said two prominent critics). What the coauthors proposed as a first step to a rewilded continent was the establishment of “ecological history parks,” vast experimental ranges populated with “megafauna,” which tourists would flock to, they said, for the same reason people flocked to San Diego’s Wild Animal Park. But this raised an obvious question: How “rewilded” could it be with a fence around it?
The critics of Pleistocene Rewilding claimed the plan was more than just misguided benevolence. It was dangerous, and if it came to pass, the whole continent could become a sad zoo, imploding with good intentions.
My problem was that I liked it. I liked the idea of an Arizona again sporting wild elephants and a North Dakota polka dotted with bison herds. I was suspect of both the caricature the proposal had received in the press and its dismissal by scientists. When I began to investigate Pleistocene Rewilding—talking to both the coauthors and their critics and eventually flying to New Mexico, where a number of them lived—I found that behind the ostensible terms of the debate lie another, a debate over religion and science and which should rule the day when we finally decide what to do with our command of nature.
When Henry Thoreau, in his essay “Walking,” claimed that America was well suited to human habitation because it lacked “African beasts, as the Romans called them,” he appears not to have known that the Americas once seethed with such creatures.
The history of conservation begins with Thoreau but quickly bends to John Muir and Aldo Leopold, an arc that measures a decline in quality of prose style and an increase in ecological understanding. If Thoreau is conservation’s Adam, then Leopold, founding member of the Wilderness Society and father of the science of wildlife management, is its Abraham. Leopold’s “land ethic,” described in his 1948 book Sand County Almanac, “changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” This shift is the single belief driving the recently emerged field of conservation biology.
First proposed in 1979, conservation biology imagined itself a “crisis discipline,” which meant it would combine the rigors of science with the ability to suggest action even in the face of uncertainty. For specific laws conservation biology needed a Moses, and found one in Michael Soulé, an academic notable for having once left academia to spend five years in a Zen Buddhist temple. Soulé was also one of the coauthors of the Pleistocene Rewilding paper.
When I began to contact the coauthors—whose credentials, it should be noted, matched or exceeded those of their critics—it was Soulé I most wanted to find. I caught up with him via phone in Colorado. His career had begun forty years before, with a study of lizard evolution on California islands. As contained systems, islands offered scientists natural laboratories to test their understanding of nature. In the 1960s, when Soulé began his work, biologists were just starting to reject a long-standing belief that nature was all about stasis and balance. A more chaotic interplay of forces reflected the true state of things. “Island biogeography” not only shed light on the complexity of ecosystems but also discovered a measure of predictability within the chaos. Factors like island size and distance from the mainland made species loss predictable. Nature as stasis was replaced with a new model: a repeating cycle of crash and reclamation, extinction and immigration.
Conservation biology didn’t hit its stride until Soulé came down from the mount of the Zen temple. In 1985, in a paper called “What is Conservation Biology?”, he listed four axioms that would become the new discipline’s commandments:
1. Diversity of Organisms is Good
2. Ecological Complexity is Good
3. Evolution is Good
4. Biotic Diversity has Intrinsic Value
After this, Soulé turned his attention to another kind of island: isolated canyons amidst San Diego suburban development, where a decline in songbird populations offered the opportunity to demonstrate that the mainland was predictable too.
The culprits in the canyons, it turned out, were the same coyotes I had watched as a boy. Not too many of them, but too few. Coyotes preyed on animals like raccoons and opossums, which in turn preyed on songbirds. When development wiped out the coyotes, raccoon and opossum populations soared and the songbirds crashed.
Coyotes were just one example. Other biologists were confirming that large predators and megafauna performed a regulatory function, offering benefits that cascaded through ecosystems. A vocabulary emerged to designate animals that exerted this “top-down control”: keystone species, umbrella species, and so on. The lesson was that if you wiped out a keystone, biodiversity decreased exponentially, stopping evolution. Once this became clear, biologists wondered whether an absent keystone could be reintroduced, biodiversity invigorated, and evolution restored.
“At first glance,” warned an early text, “a vision of North America with regained wildness and biodiversity seems unrealistic, even utopian.” But it worked. The crown jewel of “restoration ecology” was the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park in 1995. Controlling moose and elk that had been overgrazing for decades, the wolves offered benefits to many species.
But then came Pleistocene Rewilding with its plan to bring back animals that had been gone for thirteen thousand years. This wasn’t just restoration; it was a leap of faith. Obviously you can’t bring back saber-tooth tigers or giant ground sloths, but you can introduce “surrogates”—African lions or rhinoceroses—that do the same ecological “job.” That an animal’s role within an ecosystem should be measured by what it contributes to the ecosystem rather than its genes was, for some, enough to vault the plan beyond the pale.
Yet the Pleistocene Rewilders were perfectly comfortable substituting an African proboscidian for an American proboscidian, “rewilding” a world that never actually existed. In the Nature paper, the authors admitted that it might look like they were “playing God,” and even Soulé once said “a cynic might describe rewilding as an atavistic obsession with Eden.”
“One of the skills ecologists learn,” Soulé told me, “is to look at an ecosystem and see what’s missing, what’s not there. And what’s missing is large species. I always felt the absence of large species was the ghost lingering in our ecosystem. That accelerated when I started looking at birds in canyons. That’s what lit the fuse of my concern.”
For a century, conservation has been split down the middle by opposing philosophies on why we should be trying to save nature. One side wants to use nature for its resources, the other to keep it pristine for its intrinsic value. Loosely put, the resource argument ruled the early part of the twentieth century, and the intrinsic view waxed through the 1950s and ’60s.
Since approximately 1970, the protection of nature’s inherent value has taken a back seat again. The slow lurch of globalization finally hit a trot, and conservationists loyal to the intrinsic view now have to devise strategies on how to convince the developing world not to make the ecological mistakes of the first world. Some have chosen compromise, arguing that sustainable development is possible by convincing indigenous peoples to develop with conservation in mind. Others have turned to the authority of science, to Leopold, Soulé, and E.O. Wilson, and the argument that biodiversity is good and profitable. Still others—like Dave Foreman, founder of the eco-saboteur outfit Earth First! and a coauthor of the Pleistocene Rewilding paper—gave up on the system and, at least for a while, turned conservation into an outright battle.
With more public relations experience than most of his coauthors, Foreman was the public face of Pleistocene Rewilding. I soon found myself riding shotgun beside him through New Mexico, swooping through hills rimmed with rocks and ponderosa pine.
Age had slowed Foreman down from the wild old days, and with his beard and hair gone gray, Foreman had embraced a kind of Hemingwayness, which accounted for both his fascination with big animals and the cat he blamed for the typos in his book, Rewilding North America. We were on our way to a remote equid ranch to visit a captive population of Przewalski’s horses (P. horses), a near-extinct Mongolian species that the Pleistocene Rewilders had suggested as a surrogate for the lost American horses. As we glided past Wagon Mound, a little town at 6,200 feet, Foreman became wistful about the last time he had seen the P. horses.
“Seeing them up there on the ranch, on the high steppes, with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop—they just looked so right there,” he said.
The night before, in his home outside Albuquerque, Foreman had seemed a bit bored as he ran through the oft-told, self-made myth of his life for me. He started as a lobbyist back when conservation was both a conservative and liberal concern; he campaigned for Goldwater but swung left as the traumas of the 1960s unfolded. He was outraged when the Wilderness Act of 1964 netted just a fraction of the protected space activists requested, and got snookered himself in the ’70s while heading up an effort to section off the few roadless areas left in North America. The Reagan Revolution was the final straw for Foreman and a few friends. They formed Earth First!, which advocated the “monkeywrenching” of Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkeywrench Gang. The movement of autonomous cells of saboteurs made Foreman famous and quickly attracted the attention of the FBI.
According to Foreman, it was only a few years before he began to suspect that the Earth First! tactics (e.g., spiking trees, damaging heavy machinery) had exhausted themselves. Moreover, the movement had become a culture—tribal and paganish—with which he wasn’t wholly comfortable. Moreover, early on, Earth First! had adopted the slogan “Back to the Pleistocene!”, which some of Foreman’s followers took a little too literally.
In the early 1990s, Foreman left Earth First! and teamed up with Soulé and conservation biology. By then conservation biology had become a land management discipline, a science of nature reserves in line with island biogeography. The size and spacing of reserves, it was found, correlated with overall biodiversity. Biologists then created plans to introduce and control the “abiotic forces” that affected these ecosystems—fires and floods. Rather than simply allow a fire to consume a forest or prairie—as officials had done in Yellowstone in 1988—they could introduce burns. Timed released from dams could also simulate the ecological work of a flood. All of which struck some as a little orchestrated for the wilderness.
Nevertheless, Soulé and others began to brainstorm ways to ameliorate the country’s inefficient splatter pattern of protected space. Foreman came along just in time to help with the Wildlands Project, a movement whose goal was a continent unified by “corridors,” pathways for wildlife between existing reserves. Foreman sketched four visionary “megalinkages” that would connect the reserve islands and close the continent’s wounds. The wide arrows swept across the land like invasion plans.
Twenty-eight miles of electric fence surrounded the equid ranch. Its eight thousand acres made it far smaller than the million acres Foreman had told me would be required for a proper Pleistocene Rewilding experimental range. It was owned by an eccentric millionaire who had made his fortune, I was told, traveling the world in search of oil and gas. He had a thing for horses, Foreman said. The ranch had hundreds of endangered ass and zebras, and sixty or so P. horses.
The P. horse was a conservation success, and its story demonstrated that Pleistocene Rewilding could work. Named for a Polish explorer and valued initially for their wildness—they could not be broken for labor—the animals that are alive today are all descendents of approximately a dozen captive forebears from the early twentieth century. Nurtured by zoos and private owners worldwide, the population climbed steadily and not long ago reintroductions began in what was thought to be their original range. But where an animal goes extinct isn’t necessarily a good indicator of the appropriateness of that particular habitat—indeed, it might suggest exactly the opposite—and a resemblance between ancient cave paintings and the P. horse suggested that its range might have once been much larger.
That made it a good candidate for Pleistocene Rewilding. North America had already demonstrated that it could absorb foreign equid species. A number of American horses had been lost in the Pleistocene, but ten thousand years later the Spanish accidentally introduced new horses. Pockets of “wild” horses thrive today. Feral burros, introduced to the Grand Canyon by miners, also found a niche and helped spread indigenous seeds until bureaucracy caught up with them. In 1963, a committee ruled the burros non-native because they had not grazed there in the past five hundred years. Thousands were shot.
The equid ranch manager, a man named Hammer, met us at the gate and shepherded us quickly through the grounds: the offices, the vet center, the hangar for the millionaire’s plane, and the house-with-swimming-pool he used when he was around. Then we headed off for a driving tour of the ranch, weaving through internal fence lines and hypnotic patterns of curious zebras. We drove into the labyrinth of juniper that the ranch had instead of a hedge maze, coasting past haystack-sized shrubs. Hammer pulled to a stop in front of a few bushes.
“How many zebras you see back there?” he asked me, gesturing into the shadows.
He smiled and held up five fingers. I looked back into the brush and my heart leapt a little when I began to spot eyes peering out from the junipers.
It took us awhile to find the P. horses, grazing apart from the zebras and asses. They were quiet and shy. Mothers steered new foals away from our rover.
P. horses are uniformly almond, characterized by short black manes and a stripe running down the middle of their backs. Behaviorally, they are similar to domestic horses, but if it’s possible to sense preening in domestic horses (some sense that they know we find them beautiful), then here lies the difference. The P. horses don’t care. They are the James Dean of horses—cropped hair, vaguely cool, accidentally beautiful, and entirely untamable.
And perhaps sad in that way as well, caged as in Rebel, beaten as in Giant. I didn’t see the grandeur Foreman saw, and I didn’t see the Rocky Mountains in the distance. I saw fences. The ranch was a hospital. The horses required supplemental feeding; there wasn’t enough land.
“Really, there are two kinds of rewilding,” Foreman told me: the kind done by the Wildlands Project, which Foreman continued with an online organization called the Rewilding Institute, and Pleistocene Rewilding. The two are not the same, and even though Foreman openly called himself a “fundamentalist,” I got the sense that he was a little more comfortable with the more conservative approach.
In broad terms, the two kinds of rewilding can be boiled down to species reintroductions (putting animals where they once lived) versus species introductions (putting them where they had not). Introductions worried the critics of Pleistocene Rewilding.
Reintroductions of wolves to Yellowstone or birds to island groups had produced positive repeatable results. In contrast, introductions were themselves a major cause of extinctions. New Zealand and Hawaii are the classic cases. New Zealand had a total of three mammals before humans arrived—all bats—but has since been invaded by 34 mammals, 33 bird species, 1,600 plants, and 1,500 insects. Local biodiversity was changed irrevocably. Attempts that have been made to correct this problem by introducing more species, such as predators to control pests, have generally made for a comedy of errors. In 1883, a sugar planter tried to introduce mongoose in Hawaii to control invasive rats only to discover that the mongoose was diurnal and rats nocturnal.
But a problem is found in a simple introduction/reintroduction split. No one is sure where to draw the line between the two. The Grand Canyon burros, who contributed to local fauna, hit a wall called the “pre-Columbian curtain.” This is the current rule: Everything on this side of the curtain is considered “recent,” and animals that have been removed recently can be reintroduced. But dissenters argue that the arrival of Columbus in the New World is an arbitrary marker of ecological purity. Why not move the curtain back to Leif Erikson and the Vikings? Why not to the first human who crossed the Bering Strait? Why not to the Pleistocene?
The rationale for a Pleistocene curtain can be found in the work of the real visionary behind Pleistocene Rewilding—not Dave Foreman or Michael Soulé, but an aging zoologist named Paul Martin. Martin was the most vocal proponent of the “overkill hypothesis,” which held that the arrival of human beings in North America had triggered the extinctions that Pleistocene Rewilding wanted to undo. If humans were responsible for the extinctions, the suggestion went, then perhaps thinking in terms of Columbus put the dividing line between old and new ten thousand years too late.
The overkill hypothesis was a battle unto itself. Its opponent theory, climate change, held that the Pleistocene extinctions were the result of a series of climatic shifts, not human interference. For decades the two sides have battled over Clovis points, core samples, and mammoth kill sites, but the debate occasionally hits a sharper note. “Martin’s argument is meant to appeal not to scientific reason but instead to faith,” read one dastardly academic volley lobbed at him. Martin was unfazed. His original name for the plan to introduce wildlife as a substitute for lost Pleistocene species was “resurrection ecology.”
It took forty years and a little help from media mogul Ted Turner to get it moving. In 2004, when Martin and others cooked up the idea for the Nature paper, they needed space for a meeting of the coauthors. Laughed out of official scientific venues, they turned to Turner, whose much-praised endangered species fund works with wolves, grizzly bears, prairie dogs, ferrets, trout, and many other animals.
The twelve coauthors met at one of Turner’s large New Mexico ranches. A group of predator experts and paleoecologists, an intentional blend of sympathizers and skeptics, the participants started out testy but ended in agreement. The most skeptical among them were pleased with language in the paper that specified a contained experiment.
But mention of the experiment was left out of the media deluge that followed. Good Morning America’s coverage included an animated sequence showing elephants marauding through New York. Ted Turner called his ranch manager as soon as he found out about the plan, furious at the suggestion that he would be bringing African animals to New Mexico.
The tortoises didn’t bother him so much, however. After the hype fizzled, the first animal to burst from the Pleistocene Rewilding gates was a turtle. The coauthors had suggested that a captive population of endangered Mexican Bolson tortoises could be bred and introduced to those places in North America where fossils showed they had lived eight thousand years ago. In other words, the Bolsons could be saved by a Pleistocene curtain. Turner was interested, and a plan was hatched to move a sizeable number of the tortoises to his ranch for breeding and safekeeping.
I made my way to Turner’s ranch when I left Albuquerque. Two hours south, I drove eight miles of twisty roads inside the ranch only to be told that I’d passed through just the southern tip of it. The ranch was seventeen times the size of Manhattan. And not too far away, Turner owned another ranch three times larger than that.
The ranch manager was a man named Steve Dobrott. An elegant gent with a tough squint and the posture of a fence post, he drove me out to where the tortoises would be kept. The land was unremarkable, but the range around it would amount to a mini-rewilding experiment, including bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and burrowing owls. The size was still modest, however: eight thousand acres, like the equid ranch, a tiny fraction of the Turner property—and fencing would separate the animals.
Dobrott had been present for the Pleistocene Rewilding meeting, but asked to have his name left off the list of coauthors. He thought the pre-Columbian curtain was fine where it was. The Turner ranch was currently culling their bison herd to purify its genetic makeup, and Dobrott seemed content with that kind of progress. The ranch was a gene bank. Keep the species, keep them pure. Someone else will make the withdrawal.
“That’s my life’s one little contribution to ‘rewilding,’” he said.
The lead author of the Nature paper was not any of the established names that filled out its impressive list of coauthors. It was Josh Donlan, an up-and-coming biologist who at the time had not yet finished his Ph.D. The Pleistocene Rewilders were veterans compiling careers’ worth of experience and research. Donlan was their workhorse.
When I met him, Donlan lived in a yurt off the grid deep in the Sky Islands of southern New Mexico. Made up of forty mountain ranges situated at the meeting point of four major ecosystems, the Sky Islands are among the most biologically diverse places in the world. Donlan’s yurt—one part survivalist lean-to, one part sheik’s tent—sat at the base of the Chiricahuas and looked out across the San Simon Valley, where Geronimo was born.
It may be an exaggeration to call Donlan a future primitive, but working biologists do seem to embrace a nomadic lifestyle. Donlan lived at the yurt just four months out of the year, traveling the rest of the time to a variety of projects, most notably one then nearing completion on the Galapagos Islands. At thirty-three, Donlan was already the lead or coauthor on several dozen papers and articles. In 1997, he and a few friends had formed an NGO, Island Conservation, which focused on the eradication of introduced pest species from island chains. The Galapagos project had targeted 140,000 invasive goats that had transformed local ecosystems, decimating tree-sized sunflowers and driving to near-extinction bird species that went back to Darwin’s time.
Eradication was another piece of the rewilding puzzle—first you eliminated the pests, then you reintroduced the species they displaced. But a species doing well was difficult to get rid of, and eradication had become its own science. The goats were tricky. The first 90 percent were easy, Donlan said. You just hunted them. The last 10 percent were the hard part. The solution was a “Judas goat.” Capture a female, put a radio collar on her, and release her—goats are social. Even better, make a “Super-Judas goat”: spay her first, and give her hormones to make her aroused. These techniques illustrate that not all conservation biologists these days are animal lovers. In fact, a number of the Pleistocene Rewilders were hunting buddies.
“We’re not purists, we’re pragmatists,” Soulé had told me. Donlan’s own pragmatism, and his experience with eradications, emerged when our talk turned to the critics of Pleistocene Rewilding.
“We’re not going to have runaway Bolson tortoise populations,” he said. “We’re not going to have runaway lion populations. If we do … we killed them once, we can do it again.”
From the yurt we could see twenty or thirty miles, a view that looked toward Utah on one side, Mexico on the other. Out on the plain, I counted four dust devils, hundreds of feet high, each toiling their separate troubles. Donlan described the Turner ranch meeting and the hush that fell across the room when certain attendees spoke their minds.
When I asked who might be able to implement a Pleistocene Rewilding experiment, Donlan gestured out the tent flap to the neighboring valley. A few leagues away, there was a collection of conservation-minded ranchers known as the Malpai Borderlands Group. They had the land, and they weren’t inclined to sell out to developers who would turn their property into “ranchettes.” Another possibility was Native American tribes that didn’t want to give in to casinos. The Pleistocene Rewilders were also ready with data on what an ecological history park could do for tourism. They would try the same argument with Texas game ranchers—saving animals was more profitable than killing them—but Donlan thought it was a long shot.
The Bible, which has been claimed as the source of the word “wilderness,” splits the difference on it. It’s the place we should conquer (Genesis 1:28), but it’s also where Jesus found wisdom (Mathew 4:1) and Elijah and Moses found guidance (I Kings 19:4, Exodus 19:3). It’s what Adam and Eve are cast into (Genesis 3:22)—making Eden more gated community than utopia—but God lives there, too (Exodus 3:18, 7:16).
Some version of this contradiction was what I found when I turned north again and headed into the Gila Wilderness Reserve. The Gila was the first area in the United States given protection specifically for its value as wilderness. At ten thousand feet, I parked and hiked along a path that straddled the continental divide.
Aldo Leopold—who experienced the revelation that led to his career as a conservationist in the Gila—once remarked that wilderness was not wilderness unless it could “absorb a two-weeks’ pack trip.” I was only about an hour into the Gila before I became slightly afraid. Again and again, the Pleistocene Rewilders had suggested to me that the thing now missing from wilderness was fear, and for weeks, I’d been thinking about megaufauna—large predators. I zigzagged between views of the entire east half of the continent, and the entire west. The only animals I saw were lizards, whose frantic pushups made it clear that they did not regard me as an apex predator. Everything was peaceful, serene, and sacred, but still I started to get a feeling that I get only when treading in deep, dark water. I was beginning to feel like prey.
Specifically, I considered the mountain lion, which is still extant in certain parts of the United States, and which sometimes, precisely because suburban sprawl has been encroaching on its territory for decades, has been known to stalk and kill people. As I approached a peak, a variety of unfortunate scenarios involving lions and myself played out in my imagination. I decided to rest for a short time and then head back to the car.
I sat on a boulder, my back toward a sharp incline. Almost at once, I heard—and felt—a low grumble behind me. The feeling slipped up my neck. I turned and thought the mountain might be exploding. New Mexico does have defunct volcanoes, so this wasn’t such a crazy thought, though I had been expecting jaws and fur.
When I got all the way around, only the harsh light of the sun and the sonic blast of a roar greeted me, and then I saw, just a few hundred feet up, a military jet blasting across the treetops. It was no lion—just some flyboy buzzing the watershed in the oldest wilderness in America. I was supposed to be afraid of animals, but wound up frightened of what was essentially myself.
The best argument against Pleistocene Rewilding was not that introduced species tended to reduce biodiversity. It was our hubris in thinking that we know enough about how ecosystems work to even consider doing such a thing. Conservation biology is plagued by little things like coming up with a precise definition of biodiversity. Or trying to figure out how many species exist in the world—estimates range from 4 million to 100 million. Or trying to decide just how rapidly we’re losing species in what essentially is a modern, man-driven extinction crisis. All of these questions reveal the way that science, bound to methodology and experimentation, fails nature. Its focus is too finely trained; it won’t allow you to do something, to enact something, simply because you think it right. And here lies the problem. If good science and consensus among scientists can’t translate to quick action for something like global warming, then how could it ever work for Pleistocene Rewilding?
All of these thoughts were running through my mind as I climbed down from the mountain and drove west out of the Gila. I wasn’t far outside the reserve when I received the day’s second manmade jolt: the Santa Rita open-pit copper mine. It appeared around a bend, several thousand acres of artificial moonscape; the dirt tiered around the mouth of the pit so that stories-high pyramids of gray soil flanked the site. It sat there biblical in the wilderness, tipping the balance for me.
Pleistocene Rewilding may be misguided, I thought, but I didn’t care. I wanted someone to do it, to attempt to undo what we have done. Neither the equid ranch nor Turner’s projects were on the proper scale. When the science of biology emerged, when they started counting and realized just how many species there were, scholars hustled to recalculate the length of a cubit. What is required now is a project as audacious as Noah’s. But we need a bigger boat.
The Pleistocene Rewilders have been criticized as unscientific, but what they hoped to achieve, over a span of dozens or hundreds of years, was the predictability that lurked beneath nature’s chaos and was too complex to fully measure or describe. How could it be a science?
The arguments in favor of Pleistocene Rewilding included benefits to ecosystems and to endangered species used as surrogates. But that was only if it worked. Because they couldn’t know for sure, the Pleistocene Rewilders had suggested an experiment of best guesses. Foreman had proposed a million acres, which would still be modest compared with the 5 million acres of Kruger National Park in South Africa, a spare desert region that supports 7,300 elephants, 2,300 lions, 28,000 bison, and 250 cheetah. But a million acres in North America would still be enough for a calculated release of some ecosystem-appropriate combination of antelope, bison, cheetah, horses, falcons, camels, lions, wolves, tortoises, and elephants.
One supporter of the plan I spoke with called Pleistocene Rewilding the “super-colliding superconducting experiment of ecology.” It was large, and it would teach us something fundamental. Even one of its critics agreed with this much: “I think it would be interesting because we would learn something. I just don’t think it’s going to work.”
Outside of science it’s already happening. The Texas game ranchers Donlan hoped to appeal to have already imported 77,000 exotic animals. On the other side of the world, Russian ecologist Sergei Zimov is in the process of creating “Pleistocene Park” in Siberia. Moose, horses, oxen, and bison are paving the way for cloned mammoths on forty thousand acres. The Pleistocene Rewilders had proposed science aligned with an inevitable trajectory.
William James once wrote that science should not tell us what to believe—rather we should use science to confirm what we understand of the universe by way of intuition. In other words, belief trumps observation. Sometimes even science needs to take a leap of faith.
“We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t,” Soulé told me. “I’d rather be damned for careful doing than for doing nothing.”
J.C. Hallman is the author of The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. He lives in St. Paul and can be reached at jchallman.com.
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