What Is 'Rewilding?' We Need Some Science Here

Konik horses and Heck cattle in the Oostvaardersplassen.
Konik horses and Heck cattle in the Oostvaardersplassen. GarardM/Wikipedia
I’m not really supposed to tell you this, but sometimes I find myself writing about a topic for a long time, and then all of a sudden I wonder what in the world I’m even talking about. Yeah, I know. You can’t believe that. Shocked and amazed. But it happens. So this week’s big lightbulb moment has to do with the term “rewilding.”

For at least a year, I have been writing about what a wonderful thing rewilding would be for the 10,000 acres of public land along the Trinity River bottoms through the center of the city, as opposed to the kind of ornate manmade park the wealthy women of the Park Cities want to see built on the river.

All of a sudden, I’m sitting at my desk, and some kind of mental dust mote blows loose in my brain. I think, “You know what? Rewilding. I have no idea what that means.”

Oops. Jeez Louise. I need to check it out, right? What if it’s not at all what I sort of assumed it was? It could be something to do with teenagers. We wouldn’t want that.

I looked it up. Then I looked it up again. I even read some articles in scientific journals. Oh, man. We need to have a serious talk about this.

Basically, we’re talking about managing land in a way that steers it into a more truly natural state, as opposed to something manmade. Central Park in New York, for example, is very manmade — sort of an architectural postcard.

"The population grows in summertime and there is no control mechanism. Normally you’d have predators such as wolves, but it’s too small an area to have predators.” — Patrick van Veen

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Central Park is what 19th century architect Frederick Law Olmsted thought nature should look like. Pretty. And that was a new idea then. Most people still thought nature was a horrifying cesspool that somebody, poor people probably, should get busy mopping up as soon a possible.

Olmsted’s vision was of nature as a work of art. But in today’s world, plastered every inch with manmade design, rewilding is an attempt to set aside certain areas where we watch to see what nature would do if we got out of her way.

The big challenge is that we can’t get out of her way. We can’t even get out of our own way. There are too many of us. And sometime in the last couple of centuries, as we have been busily elbowing nature out of our way, we have, perhaps unsurprisingly, adopted a very anthropomorphic understanding of what we think nature should be — more like us.

According to the values of most of the developed world, nature isn't just supposed to be pretty. It’s supposed to be nice. Like us? Well, supposedly.

Nature is not necessarily nice at all, of course, nor is it always pretty, which brings us to the matter of the Oostvaardersplassen. (Just bear with me for one second, please, the name will grow on you.) The Oostvaardersplassen is a nature preserve east of Amsterdam in the Netherlands where one of Europe’s most ambitious rewilding experiments is taking place.

In the 1970s, ecologist Frans Vera, an international thought-leader and pioneer of rewilding, persuaded the Dutch government to introduce semi-wild cattle, horses and certain kinds of deer to mimic ancient European species like the auroch, an extinct species of wild cattle that ranged over Europe, Asia and North Africa. The last known aurochs died in Poland in 1627.

Why put other animals out there to act like aurochs? Because some plants with big seeds evolved over the eons to depend on big, grazing herbivores to spread their species across the land in manure. When the big grazers died off, so did the plants.

Would the reintroduction of big, roving grazers bring about a change in the plant life of the Oostvaardersplassen? The answer has been a resounding yes, and for years, the Oostvaardersplassen has been celebrated as “The New Wilderness of Europe.” Until last winter.

During a series of mild winters, Heck cattle, Konik horses and red deer flourished in the 12,355-acre preserve, bringing their number to 5,230 animals. But last year, a tougher winter hit them, and nature began doing what nature does with overpopulation — starvation. The population fell to 1,850.

Most of the dead animals were shot by Dutch authorities, but Dutch media were flooded with grisly images of stumbling emaciated horses, dead deer and dying cattle. Animal rights activists flew into rages. Protesters braved stiff fines to heave bales of hay over the fences to the hungry beasts.

Patrick van Veen, a biologist whose petition to stop animal cruelty at Oostvaardersplassen drew 125,000 signatures, told The Guardian newspaper: “This experiment has absolutely failed. You’d expect 20 or 30 percent to die of natural causes including starvation each year.

“But the population grows in summertime and there is no control mechanism. Normally you’d have predators such as wolves, but it’s too small an area to have predators.”

Recently, a Dutch provincial government commission intervened, ordering changes in the management system that will maintain the grazing population at a stable 1,500 animals. The goal is to avoid starvation, which, of course, is the humane thing. But is nature humane?

In fact, what about wolves? Van Veen could have a point. One of the great global success stories of rewilding is the effort begun in 1995 to reintroduce the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park — 3,500 square miles of “wilderness recreation area” (oxymoron alert) in Wyoming and Montana.

British writer George Monbiot has become the popular voice of the Yellowstone wolf project, appearing everywhere from TED talks to PBS explaining the effects of the reintroduced wolf population at Yellowstone. The wolves quickly scared an over-dense population of deer and elk up into higher woods, out of low-lying grassy valleys where it was too easy for the wolves to take them.

click to enlarge Would one of these not be just totally awesome roaming around the new Harold Simmons Park? - FLYING PUFFIN/WIKIPEDIA
Would one of these not be just totally awesome roaming around the new Harold Simmons Park?
Flying Puffin/Wikipedia
As it turned out, those valleys were grassy because the deer and elk had been nibbling off all the new tree shoots. Once the grazers were gone or at least less dense, forests of willow, aspen and cottonwood sprang up.

Birds moved in. Beaver came to gnaw the trees but also to build dams, which invited in greater numbers of otters, muskrats, ducks, fish, reptiles and amphibians. The wolves killed off coyotes, which caused greater numbers of rabbits and mice to survive, inviting hawks, weasels, foxes, ravens and bald eagles to move in.

Monbiot claims the growth of trees near streams has even hardened the stream banks, narrowing streams in some places and creating deep ponds elsewhere.

No one has any idea where the process may be headed, but scientists around the world agree the reintroduction of one “apex predator” species into Yellowstone continues to reverberate profoundly.

Nevertheless, the same scientists have come to very little agreement on the problem I started out with here (making me feel a tad better). They don’t yet agree what the word rewilding even means.

Rewild to what? Which wild? Rewilding experts and proponents are engaged in serious debates about the baseline for rewilding.

Is it the Holocene Era, which began about 12,000-11,500 years ago and continues today — pretty much the heyday of human beings? What about the Pleistocene Era, 2.58 million years ago, before humans came along and wiped out the huge herbivores and original super-predators like the cave bear and the saber-toothed cat?

The goal is to avoid starvation, which, of course, is the humane thing. But is nature humane?

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There are serious rewilding experts who advocate introducing elephants and lions into areas of North America to reproduce Pleistocene conditions. As soon as I saw that, I thought, “I gotta be for that.”

It’s sooo tempting. I would love to come out in favor of putting elephants, lions, alligators and huge numbers of poisonous snakes right in the middle of that Harold Simmons Park that the Parks Cities ladies want to build on the Trinity River downtown, all in the name of rewilding, don’t you know?

Then I could do my own TED talks: “The introduction of huge numbers of poisonous snakes has been especially effective,” I would say in my TED talk, possibly in an English accent, “in frightening the over-dense population of Park Cities people up into safer, more landscaped areas, in turn inviting greater numbers of normal people to approach the river.”

I am not going to say things like that because, well, I’m ashamed of myself for continuing to be so sophomoric at such an advanced age (although my wife tells me what keeps me young is my immaturity, which I choose to take for a compliment).

So let’s say this instead. The rewilding movement is just now taking hold globally as a major new turning point in humankind’s approach to nature and to conservation. At the very heart of it is an intricate balance of protection with laissez faire, a whole new relationship between human beings and the planet.

One of the things we can’t know yet is how profoundly important this movement may or may not be. A term just now coming into use in rewilding, for example, is de-extinction.

By providing the right habitat and conditions, could mankind create natural laboratories where nature would genetically re-engineer extant species back into species that have been lost? And in observing that process, might human beings learn useful things about their relationship with the planet and their long-range survival?

Jokes aside, the 10,000 acres of undeveloped land along the Trinity River, all in public hands under one government entity, provide a space almost as big as the Oostvaardersplassen (I told you you’d get used to it) — Europe’s New Wilderness. That means Dallas owns and controls a place that could be made into one of the world’s great rewilding laboratories.

Scientists would have to come here to appraise what we have. We would have to conduct a serious public discussion on whether to do it and then how. But, once launched, a serious, scientifically grounded rewilding experiment here would position Dallas at the leading edge of an exciting global movement. And maybe even do some good.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze