Rewilding Part 3: Out of Control
To me, rewilding as a topic has many supporters that are, shall we say, too passionate. I have close friends that are practically obsessed with the idea of rewilding Britain and can’t stand the thought that it might be a bad one. They won’t even hear about the downsides. If you’ve read my previous articles on the subject then you know that I am firmly in the “for” camp, but I try to be realistic about it. Here, I’m going to discuss the often ignored negatives of rewilding which, I have to say, are pretty significant.
As with my last article, I’ll begin in Britain with the beaver introductions. Beavers are a former UK native, so are well-suited to the landscape, and pose no risk to livestock or human safety since they’re herbivores. The ecological success of beaver reintroductions is both unsurprising and undeniable, but does that really account for the £2 million bill that the Knapdale trial alone accumulated? I can’t help but think that there are more pressing uses for that money, than the introduction of a species whose global population status is least concern.
We could in fact go through all of the examples mentioned in the previous article and find imperfections in every case. The lack of carnivores in Oostvaardersplassen is starting to show, with herbivore numbers getting out of control. On the other hand, the introduced herbivores of Pleistocene Park struggle to survive through the Siberian seasons. Even though supplementary food is provided for them, the populations plummet in winter and more and more animals have to be released to maintain numbers. Yellowstone has a slightly different issue in that the introduced wolves are, well, wolves. Not only does their presence in one of America’s most visited parks put human life at risk, the wolf packs are free to roam outside of park boundaries, where they are shot by over-zealous hunters.
So, there are problems with the cases I’ve discussed previously, but what about in general? Could there be a perfect rewilding project, free of negative impacts? In short….No. Any project that introduces a formerly extinct animal is going to have its risks and its costs. The magnitude of those will vary depending on species. Introducing carnivores will be far riskier than introducing herbivores, since the carnivores are likely to endanger both livestock and humans and they’ll probably decimate their prey’s populations (which could be as bad as it is good). If only herbivores are introduced then we could end up with an Oostvaardersplassen, where humans have to act as predators to limit rising populations. This isn’t exactly wild, is it?
To make my point a bit clearer, let’s look at the proposed introduction of wolves in Scotland. Imagine it. A pack of wolves are chasing a red deer stag through Glen Affric, the trees swaying in the breeze, the tourists taking photos and laughing. Sounds like a good idea. Wolves are cuddly and fluffy, and they used to live in the UK, so we should totally reintroduce them, right? Not quite. I have to point out the blindingly obvious. Wolves are wild, dangerous animals. They are a risk to human life. They are a risk to livestock. You might not care about the lives of a few Scottish sheep, but I bet the farmer does. Even if the farmers in the immediate area agreed to the introductions (perhaps we agree to compensate them), wolves aren’t bound to their release site. They will wander, they will explore, and they will end up in places we don’t expect. Would you support the introduction of wolves into the back gardens of London? Probably not. Can we guarantee than an introduction elsewhere won’t lead to urban wolves? Not at all. Scientists couldn’t even keep track of all of the beavers they released. How would we do against wolves that range for hundreds of kilometers?
It’s not just reintroductions that have issues. Larger scale rewilding projects such as Pleistocene Park involve releases of non-natives. Since we can’t yet predict how an animal will impact an ecosystem that it hasn’t evolved with, this is naturally a risky idea. Supporters argue that such projects could create alternative wildlife havens, areas where endangered species from war torn countries are safe and ecologically effective. I have to ask: what is the point of saving the animal and not its ecosystem? And even if we decide that it’s worth preserving just the species, will moving them to, say, the USA, mean that funds are diverted from conservation projects in the field to what is essentially a safari park?
If you take anything from my rewilding series, let it be this: think carefully about the negatives of any and all rewilding projects. Think about the location, the economy and the politics. Would the introductions endanger humans, affect land use, affect livestock? Could the funds be better spent? In short, will other people agree that it’s worth doing? In some cases, the positives will not outweigh the negatives and perhaps we, as conservationists, would be wise to accept this and focus on more attainable goals.
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