"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.
In a 2006 article [PDF] in The American Naturalist, a small herd of perfectly respectable conservation biologists advocates a bold ecological restoration project they call “Pleistocene Rewilding.” The concept itself is outrageously wild. First of all, “rewilding” is the process of reintroducing species to ecosystems from which they have been extirpated—usually by that big bully, Homo Notsosapiens. Think wolves in Yellowstone. Pleistocene rewilding, by contrast, is the incredible idea that we can enhance ecosystem health by reintroducing many of the large mammals that were driven to extinction between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago. The so-called “pre-Columbian benchmark” of 1492 is the commonly used target for restoration efforts. To achieve this benchmark we just figure out how the world looked on the day Chris Columbus made landfall—say, at about cocktail hour—and then restore North American ecosystems to that condition by extirpating exotic species, reintroducing natives, and rehabilitating habitat. It isn’t easy to do, but at least it’s easy to understand.
Then along come these provocative Pleistocene Rewildatators, who ask why we’re so stuck on 1492. In fact, it was about 13,000 years ago that humans showed up in North America, where they wasted no time poking spears into everything that moved—a habit that probably contributed to the disappearance of large mammals. And the mass extinction of megafauna during the Pleistocene—along with a secondary wave of extinctions resulting from the disappearance of those keystone species—caused severe damage to the fabric of North American ecosystems, which have been slowly fraying and unraveling ever since. Since the fossil record gives us a pretty good idea of what beasts roamed here 13,000 years ago, before the arrival of human hunters, why not select an ecological restoration benchmark that is closer to Pleistocene cocktail hour? Why not acknowledge that North American ecosystems are full of holes—ecological niches that have gone unoccupied for 10,000 years—and then do our best to fill those holes by reintroducing large mammals?
But these survivors just aren’t the same without their lost neighbors. Take pronghorn, for example, a remarkable species that can run up to 60 miles per hour. Coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, and every other major predator in North America is so incredibly slow compared to pronghorn that predation by these animals simply cannot have provided the selection pressure necessary to create the pronghorn’s unimaginable speed. Where, then, did this amazing speed come from? From the extinct American cheetah, which, although it has been absent from North American ecosystems for at least 10,000 years, chased the hell out of pronghorn for almost two million years before that.
Although the American cheetah and many other Pleistocene megafauna are long gone, advocates of Pleistocene rewilding believe we can use “extant conspecifics and related taxa” (read: kinfolk) to represent extinct species in North American ecosystems. While the several species of Pleistocene tapirs are extinct, for example, they could be represented by the mountain tapir, which survives today in South America. The extinct North American camel could be replaced by the dromedary out here in the desert, and by the vicuña or guanaco in the more mountainous parts of the West. Pleistocene North America was also home to mammoths and mastodons, megaherbivores which played a number of important roles as keystone species. If it sounds crazy to suggest that modern elephants might be used to fill this empty ecological niche, consider this: Asian elephants are more closely related to extinct North American mammoths than they are to surviving African elephants. For the vanished American cheetah and American lion we’d simply use their African cousins. Finding big cats to reintroduce might not be difficult, since more than 1,000 cheetahs are currently kept in the U.S., and more lions live on Texas ranches than in all American zoos combined.
I get it that sticking a bunch of lions and tigers and bears (Oh My!) in Nevada might have complications. But I see no reason to allow legitimate scientific counterarguments to stand in the way of imagination. What would it be like to hike Silver Hills and see not only pronghorn, as I often do, but pronghorn using every fiber of their evolutionary speed to outrun a cheetah in hot pursuit? What if a visit to our foothills spring meant not dodging fly-encrusted cow pies but instead witnessing elephants spraying spring water on their dusty, weathered backs? What if a resident herd of camels gnawed up some of these invasive woody shrubs and restored open grasslands where cattle have left nothing but sage, thistle, and cheat? What if it became a Fourth of July tradition to drink white Russians made with camel’s milk and smoke juicy peccary sausages and tasty tapir steaks on the barbeque?
And I hold no truck with the argument that we shouldn’t introduce these megafauna because they’re dangerous. I already have to keep rattlers from killing my dogs, coyotes from attacking my lazy cat, and cougars from eating my children. I suspect we’d all be energized and invigorated by making the salutary transition from Couch Potato to Potential Prey. And while I wouldn’t wish misfortune on any of my neighbors—because I have so few that I can’t afford to lose too many—I’d welcome the use of lions to purge Silver Hills of folks who don’t do their fair share of work on our dirt road. Well, and maybe the guy who talks too much at the mailboxes. And for sure the lady who delivers the mail.
But enough rhapsodizing about the usefulness of lions. What I really mean to say is that to fully inhabit a landscape—especially one as remote and inhospitable as the one I call home—requires both experiential contact and leaps of imagination. If the Great Basin desert impresses us with the sheer, incomprehensible vastness of its space, it is also important to triangulate this place within the vastness of time. To envision Silver Hills as it was 13,000 years ago is also to begin to imagine what it might look like 13,000 years from now. Why only think long and hard about our place, when we might also think deep about it? I’m not saying that Pleistocene rewilding will work right away. I realize that it might take ten or twelve thousand years, and that a few of the neighbors will have to be sacrificed for the good of the megafauna. But think of it conceptually rather than literally. Rewilding: to become wild again after having lost wildness. That is something we all need. And the first step in rewilding must be to reintroduce the possibility of the marvelous to our imagination of the land.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
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Image of mammoth art courtesy Flickr user Tony Case.
Image of "wild" mustang courtesy Flickr user Reno Tahoe.