by Sarah Boon

‘Rewilding’ is a popular buzzword these days. Ecology books from 2013 that discuss rewilding including Canadian JB MacKinnon’s Once and Future World, American Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden, and the UK’s George Monbiot with Feral. Rewilding has even gone mainstream, with the city of Vancouver developing a plan for rewilding parks spaces, and Parks Canada talking about rewilding Banff National Park by reintroducing bison.

Muybridge Buffalo galloping [Credit: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bison#mediaviewer/File:Muybridge_Buffalo_galloping.gif]

But what exactly is rewilding, and what does it have to do with you?

Rewilding is a form of restoration that aims to restore wilderness from its current managed state into a wilder version of itself. Unlike most restoration efforts, which focus on the restoration of an ecosystem that dates to a historic baseline, most often as the pre-Columbian time period (just prior to 1492) in North America, rewilding often considers a prehistoric timeframe.

Rewilding was first introduced to the public in 2005, when a group of ecologists published a scientific paper in Nature outlining their ideas for prehistoric rewilding at the continent scale. This controversial – and out of this world – strategy is called Pleistocene rewilding, and involves restoring megafauna that lived 10,000-13,000 years ago. While we can’t bring back the now-extinct mammoths, sabre-toothed cats, giant tortoises, and short-faced bears of that era, we can substitute other species such as the Asian elephant, various species of large cat (bobcat, lynx, cougar, jaguar), the Bolson tortoise, and the grizzly bear.

Tusker debarking a tree in Kabini [Credit: Wikipedia, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/2010-kabini-tusker-bark.jpg]

Why would we want to do this? Pleistocene rewilding advocates suggest that wilderness has been in a continual state of decline since that fateful moment 13,000 years ago when humans began to hunt megafauna. These animals were instrumental for food, and in physically shaping landscapes, and maintaining complex food webs and ecological interactions across continents. The mammoth, for example, is credited with controlling the spread of forests through a combination of eating trees (herbivory) and transporting seeds in their dung (seed dispersal). A modern-day example of the effects of elephant species on the landscape can be seen in Africa, where forest species are declining because of the concurrent decline in elephant populations and the loss of a key method of seed dispersal.

Rewilders argue that the 1492 baselines used in traditional restoration represents an environment that humans already substantially impacted and note that current environments are not synchronous with historic ones due to climate change and changes in ecological community structure. Rewilding – which focuses on key species rather than communities of species – is seen as a way to restore resilience and function to our planetary ecosystems so that they are better able to respond to challenges like climate change.

Supporters of rewilding also suggest that our relationship with the natural world will benefit both from the careful thought and consideration required to put rewilding plans into place, and from the more immediate relationship with nature we would develop. For example, if bison were reintroduced into Banff National Park, visitors would have to be alert for bison as well as other megafauna such as bears, making them more aware of – and more active participants in – the environment.

So what megafauna Vancouver is introducing into its parks to promote rewilding – the grizzly, perhaps? No, the rewilding plan that the city has in mind is on a much smaller scale, and designed more with the human element in mind. The plan is to create less tame (more wild?) natural spaces that the public can explore either on their own or with a guide to reconnect with nature away from manicured lawns, cell phone chatter, concrete and asphalt. These include developing a youth program called ‘Reflect Effect,’ designed to use art media to explore environmental themes and projects, or changing park mowing practices to support pollinators.

This is the kind of rewilding that you can practice in your own backyard or closest vacant lot: planting native species and non-invasive species adapted to your microclimate, providing habitat for birds, insects and butterflies, and being part of a city-wide network of rewilded urban spaces that help strengthen ecosystem resilience and response to human impacts such as air pollution, climate change, and development. All while giving people some nature to connect with – no mammoths required.

For more on rewilding, read this interview with George Monbiot, or watch this BBC documentary.

Sarah BoonSarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about the environment, science communication & policy, women in science and academic culture.

One Response to Rewilding and You

  1. […] first was at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA), where I wrote about rewilding – what it is, and what it means for […]

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