Plains Folk

Lions & Tigers & Bears

This is something I don’t want to give undue attention, because it’s one of those things that just stirs people up to no good end, but here it is: the proposal by a small group of scientists to implement what they call “Pleistocene re-wilding” on the Great Plains of North America.

The proposal is summarized by a graduate student from Cornell University, Josh Donlan, in a recent (18 August 2005) issue of Nature magazine. It begins with a deep view of history, going back to the Pleistocene, when megafauna (really big mammals) roamed all continents. The megafauna in the middle of North America, such as mastadon and mammoth, went extinct, largely due to predation by human hunters. The re-wilding group proposes to introduce African and Indian elephants, along with a collection of other animals including cheetahs and lions, as “proxies” for now-extinct American species.

The scheme targets areas of the plains “where human population is shrinking and jobs are few.” This situation, its authors assert, offers “conservation opportunities.” The whole thing is, we are assured, “science driven.”

It turns out the re-wilding scheme came from a cozy gathering of fourteen like-minded scientists who came together at one of Ted Turner’s ranches in New Mexico. Funding for their musings came from the Turner Endangered Species Fund and other foundations.

The idea of re-wilding has drawn ridicule, for obvious reasons, given its Wizard-of-Oz, Disney-World scenarios. The most damaging fire has come from wildlife conservation groups that say instead of wasting money nurturing introduced animals on the plains, elephants and lions should be protected in Africa, where they belong. Others say it’s foolhardy to move species around in wholesale fashion, given the tendency of nature to respond with unintended, often disastrous, consequences.

Little has been said about the scheme from the point of view of the plains, though, and a couple of things ought to be said, because they are larger lessons about life in our part of the country.

First, there is a problem with the view of history posed by the re-wilding group. It is hopelessly naïve. It rests on the notion of “stability,” the thought that back in the good old Pleistocene times, animals lived in harmony and balance. Stability in nature is not a fact, certainly not a “scientific” fact. No one has ever seen stability in nature, because the state of nature is transition, not stability. Stability is an article of religious faith, like Noah’s ark or Jonah’s great fish. We on the plains should know this.

Second, the publicity accorded the re-wilding scheme is a reminder that we on the plains need to generate our own ideas about our own country. If we do not, or if we fail to speak them assertively, then that leaves a visionary vacuum. And you know how nature feels about vacuums.


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