anatomy

Rewilding and Not So Wildlife

The basics of rewilding (at least in North America) are the Three C’s: Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores. Rewilding was developed in the 1990’s as a new approach to ecological restoration. Proponents have characterized it as being active rather than reactive. What this means is that instead of viewing conservation as stemming a tide or becoming shepherds to ever-declining animal populations, rewilding is focused on restoring the equilibrium of ecological systems. This is accomplished through a variety of methods that are grouped together under the Three C’s.

Rewilding: Cores

In ecology the word core refers to part of a habitat where one or more species can raise their young and acquire sustenance. This is distinct from a species’ range as that is the area where one can reasonably expect to find an animal. Individual needs, such as sufficient timber and a running water source in the case of beavers, determine how large a species’ core is in a given range, though the former is generally smaller than the latter.

Restoration efforts that focus on cores are concerned with shoring up access to ecological resources and curtailing human activities that threaten these resources. This is why surveying is important to any rewilding project. Human development can create clear and lasting danger to an ecosystem, such as with industrial waste being dumped into waterways where fish and frogs might be laying their eggs. When these dumped chemicals destroy their eggs, this not only endangers those species, but can throw the entire habitat out of balance. Other animals might starve or migrate due to diminished food resources, and others might thrive in the absence of predators, like mosquitoes. Rewilding projects centered around cores can be some of the more difficult as human-centric threats to habitats often require court battles over land rights and use, and lobbying for tougher regulations.

Rewilding can also mean different things in different places, as unique habitats face unique problems. Restoring woodlands in the United States requires separate tactics from rewilding a fen in Britain, though the underlying principles remain largely the same. In the United States and Canada, the species focused on in rewilding are animals, though outside of North America conservationists seeking to rewild tend to emphasize plants as well. While different groups may prefer different tools in shoring up the ecological health of their cores, the goal remains the same. Making it so nature can regain its footing and walk on its own.

Rewilding: Corridors

As people develop land for agriculture, housing, and other uses, they cut into the habitable ranges of most species. This generally shrinks cores as well, and when development isolates cores that are too small support healthy, stable populations of a species they either migrate or head toward extinction.

The Corridors in the Three C’s refers to ecological engineering and actions that create or protect pathways between cores. Migration is a natural part of the life cycles of several species, but this becomes a much more daunting task with infrastructure like highways criss-crossing the country. A common example of corridors-based rewilding is the construction of animal overpasses, which create safe passageways for deer and other creatures to move about as they need.

Rewilding: Carnivores

Food chains are cyclical: plants photosynthesize, herbivores eat plants, carnivores eat herbivores, and when carnivores die their energy is returned to the ecosystem, fertilizing the ground and serving as energy for several smaller species. However, according to conservation biology, apex predators are often the most important living portion of the habitats they reside in. Food chains and webs depend on natural checks and balances to maintain their equilibrium. Predators are often keystone species because they keep in check the population sizes of smaller herbivores, which due to evolution usually have an easier time finding food and reproducing. As previously mentioned, this can cause certain herbivores to grow unchecked, but the negatives do not stop at overpopulation. Overgrazing can harm and reduce grasslands and forests without predators to keep herbivores in check.

A classic example of carnivore-based rewilding is when gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park in 1995 after being driven from that range via hunting. Their reintroduction helped curtail the unchecked deer and elk populations, which allowed local flora to rebound, and set the stage for others animals to return along with them, like beavers and songbirds. With the trees and beavers returned, even Yellowstone’s rivers began to stabilize, as before they were eroding at an unnatural rate. Root systems help keep soil in place and beaver dams slow down water flow, and this is true not just in one particular habitat, but of rivers all over the world.

Rewilding: Benefits

Beyond those already mentioned, rewilding also offers ecopsychological benefits, which is just an academic way of saying that people like to be in and around nature. Many people respond positively to the wild at an emotional level. This is a plus for both individuals and tourism. People are drawn toward pristine, natural spaces and the animals therein, so while it takes investment and coordination to rewild, many areas see financial returns from these endeavors.

More importantly, though potentially a harder sell depending on one’s audience, are the ecological services that healthy habitats provide. These are systems that take negative inputs and through a series of natural processes produce positive outputs; the negative and positive here being relative to what sustains life on Earth. A prime example of an ecological service is the water cycle, which is how scientists describe the movement of water through various habitats due to processes like evaporation and the formation of clouds. This cycle keeps water from becoming stagnant and moves around the limited resource so that more plants and animals can have access to it. When human development and activities threaten the health of habitats, they also threaten these services. Deforestation comes to mind, as trees process the carbon dioxide many living creatures exhale and in turn provide us with oxygen. When trees are cut down en masse, this process is hampered. While it may seem roundabout, the health of our ecosystems is directly tied to our own health. Rewilding can help anchor and sustain ecological services.

Urban Wildlife

And yet, for all the animals driven up to and over the edge of extinction by human development, there are some that have benefitted from our enterprises. Urban wildlife takes many forms, but the most common example are generalists. Raccoons, rats, and pigeons benefit from dense human population centers and their byproducts, like trash as a food source, and complex architecture that keeps them safe from predators.

Urban wildlife is not very wild in the traditional sense. Of course there is a difference between a domestic dog and a feral one, but it is interesting if not important to understand that while our expansion as a species has harmed many other species, it has also helped a small number of those able to adapt to the changes we have brought. Golf courses might be an environmental downgrade for most animals, but geese flourish in these human-specific landscapes.

To most, urban wildlife is a category of pest, though it is still necessary, at least scientifically, to view them as parts of ecosystems too. The city is their core. Parks and other open spaces are their corridors. And while they are not on the menu, we are their predators. Whether one intends to preserve or eradicate urban wildlife, they should view them through the frame provided by rewilding.

Works Cited

Brown, Hudson. “Overgrown is Good: Rewilding as a Conservation Strategy”. Gobe Magazine, mygobe.com/explore/rewilding-conservation-strategy/, Accessed 26 May 2020

Randall, Cassidy. “A rewilding triumph: wolves help to reverse Yellowstone degradation”. The Guardian, Jan 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/25/yellowstone-wolf-project-25th-anniversary, Accessed 27 May 2020

Moorhouse, Tom P., and Christopher J. Sandom. “Conservation and the Problem with ‘Natural’ – Does Rewilding Hold the Answer?”. Geography, vol. 100, no. 1, 2015, pp. 45-50, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43825413. Accessed 26 May 2020

“Urban Wildlife Basics”. urbanwildlifegroup.org, The Urban Wildlife Working Group, urbanwildlifegroup.org/urban-wildlife-information, Accessed 26 May 2020

“What is Rewilding?”. rewilding.org, Rewilding Earth, rewilding.org/what-is-rewilding/, Accessed 26 May 2020

“What is rewilding?”. rewildingeurope.com, Rewilding Europe, rewildingeurope.com/what-is-rewilding/, Accessed 26 May 2020

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