Rewilding on a Global Scale: Addressing the Biodiversity Crisis

Chapter 3:
Rewilding on a Global Scale: a
Crucial Element in Addressing
the Biodiversity Crisis
George Wuerthner
Rewilding on a Global Scale
According to the report, the average abundance of native species
has declined by 20% since 1900. Other groups have suffered
significant declines, including more than 40% of amphibian species.
At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the
16th century (2).
Other worrisome conclusions are that human actions have
significantly altered three-quarters of the land-based environment
and about 66% of the marine environment. More than a third of the
world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now
devoted to crop or livestock production.
Add to the human modification of land and water, is on Green
House Emissions (GHG). Due to human-caused C02 rise, we see more
floods, stronger hurricanes, more wildfires, significant droughts,
and rising seas, not to mention species decline (coral reefs) as a
a consequence of climate change.
Agriculture is responsible for significant GHG emissions, and
also one of the most destructive of human activities. Typically,
agriculture favours one or a few plants or animals over large Earth
areas. Since there is only so much soil, water, and land, this naturally
reduces the carrying capacity for native species. A change in diet
is probably what most Western countries could do immediately to
reduce carbon emissions (3). Fruits and vegetation production has
the lowest contribution to GHG emissions, while meat and dairy
have the highest emissions (4).
A 212-page online report published by the United Nations Food
and Agriculture Organization says 26% of the Earth’s terrestrial
surface is used for livestock grazing. Livestock feed crop cultivation
occupies one-third of the planet’s arable land (5).
All of these issues are ultimately related to the elephant in
the room: human population growth. The world’s population is
estimated to grow from its current 7.5 billion to over 11 billion by
2100. Even if every person used fewer resources per capita, the
human population’s sheer growth would guarantee biodiversity
losses (Cafaro and Crist 2012).
Rising competition for resources ensures conflicts and increasing
poverty. Desperate people are more likely to ignore any constraints to
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protect non-human species. So increased attention must be given to
helping people adjust their fecundity through education of women,
contraception, counseling, and changing men’s attitudes about
The opportunity
The strategy to counter species endangerment and ecosystem
collapse is to protect natural landscapes.
Parks, preserves, and other strict conservation areas fare the
best in protecting species, though even in such preserves, there is
a decline – typically because of inadequate funding, small size, and
other well-documented reasons (Wuerthner et al. 2015)
However, many anthropology and other academic pursuits
characterise parks, reserves, and other protected areas as “fortress
preserves” because they prohibit human resource uses.
Those advocating this position suggest that wilderness is only
a “cultural construct” primarily of elitist white males. Advocates
of the Anthropocene perspective argue that there is no “pristine”
However, that is a straw man since most informed parks,
wilderness, and preserve advocates recognise that humans have
been influencing the natural world for thousands of years. Our
homo sapiens ancestors likely killed off the Neanderthals and other
primates. There is abundant evidence that Indigenous Peoples from
Australia to Hawaii to North and South America, once they arrived
in lands without people, were responsible for the extinction of many
Nevertheless, even in a world of global human influences like
climate change, there are real social impact differences. New York
City is almost entirely a human construct, while the Arctic Wildlife
Refuge in Alaska is primarily under natural processes and influence.
Wilderness or wildlands means that lands are self-willed. Places like
the Arctic Wildlife Refuge can reasonably be termed “natural” and
“wild.” And these self-willed lands are critical to stemming the loss
of biodiversity (Wuerthner et al. 2014).
Rewilding on a Global Scale
Anthropocene advocates and critical social scientists are often
indifferent to the loss of wildlands and/or biodiversity or the
domestication of the Earth.
To the degree they care about biodiversity loss, it is typically
entangled in human utility. Ironically, this attitude is nearly identical
from both ends of the right or left political spectrum.
Most of those advocates believe that humans are a part of “nature”
therefore, there is no distinction between nature and the human
world. Indeed, it is argued that since humans have lived in just about
every landscape (except Antarctica), there is no such thing as “wild
nature” or the absence of human influence.
Yet if everything humans do is natural, restricting destructive
practices like logging, road construction, overhunting, overfishing,
overgrazing, soil erosion from agriculture, even air and water
pollution becomes impossible to justify.
Critics characterise such “fortress preserves” as a form of
“ecofascism” or ‘imperialism.” Ironically, such social critics and
Anthropocene boosters implicitly suggest that humans are masters
of nature – which in effect advocates human “supremacy” which is a
form of nature imperialism.
However, many Anthropocene boosters and social scientists argue
traditional conservation efforts ignore the poor or disenfranchised
humanity. This was particularly true in the past.
Most nature preserves are in places with lower human population
density and development where the fewest people are impacted.
Social justice advocates suggest that such preserves in these areas
put wildlife ahead of humans, and some argue they are essentially
Social justice advocates argue that putting resource use limits
on any people, particularly poor or indigenous people, is an unfair
burden. Indeed, in all instances, parks and wilderness advocates
must make serious attempts to compensate people for any costs of
Nevertheless, the assumption that continued resource exploitation
is the only option for attaining social justice needs to be examined.
One advantage of “fortress preserves” is that they imply limits.
George Wuerthner
One of the philosophical foundations of park, wilderness, and other
designations is restraint. It is an acknowledgment that humans
should embrace constraints.
Furthermore, parks, wilderness, and wildlife preserves often
benefit local people, because such parks and preserves provide
human services such as clean water and air, more stable landscapes
(fewer floods and severe drought), and durable natural ecosystems.
In some cases, economic opportunities exist in eco-tourism and
even existing resource exploitation. For instance, marine reserves
often increase the fish available to human consumption outside of
The argument about whether parks and preserves harm poor
people often focuses on who has the “right” to exploit natural
systems, not whether anyone should exploit them. While “rights”
are argued, responsibilities to the rest of the natural world are often
Many people support “sustainable development,” but what they
discuss is “sustainable economic development,” not sustainable
ecosystems. In other words, a forestry company might cut fewer trees
so that there is a constant supply of trees for the mill, but logging
at this level could still degrade wildlife habitat. Such an approach
might maintain the timber industry, but it may not sustain the forest
At least a quarter of the global land area is traditionally owned,
managed, used, or occupied by Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous
lands, while faring better than unprotected landscapes, still exhibit
a decline in species (6). Nevertheless, in many cases, Indigenous
Peoples are increasingly part of the global economic system and can
have a significant impact on biodiversity as well.
With modern technology impacts from even Indigenous Peoples
can be substantial. Many Indigenous preserves still permit things
like hunting, slash and burn agriculture, logging, grazing, and other
resource exploitation. These resource extraction uses can be absorbed
without damaging ecosystem sustainability if done over limited
areas. Nevertheless, they are not a replacement for the traditional
conservation approach of preserves with limited human impacts.
Rewilding on a Global Scale
Therefore, wildlands protection is even more critical because they
effectively slow and sometimes reverse biodiversity losses.
Advocates of parks and preserves argue for ethical and moral
reasons to support an ecocentric perspective, which suggests species
should be protected and preserved regardless of their perceived
value to human interests. Such a view argues that it is morally wrong
for humans to cause the extinction of other species.
The traditional approach of good-sized parks and preserves
where there is a minimum of human impact has been shown to be
the most sustainable for biodiversity.
Some biologists like E.O. Wilson, suggest that we should protect
50% of the land for nature. In his book Half-Earth, Wilson calls for
devoting half of the surface of the Earth to save or at least slow the
loss of species.
The solution
The first consideration to review is what conservation biology
principles, often called Island Biogeography, tell us about
conservation protection. As a rule, the larger the protected area or
“island of habitat,” the more likely it will be to preserve the home for
many species. A second tenet is to have linkages or corridors between
the larger parcels, so there is some movement of plants and animals
between the larger properties.
There are still large areas of the Earth where the human population
is relatively light, and the amount of land that is mostly “self-willed”
is significant. For example, much of Canada’s Boreal Forest is still
intact—although under assault by logging and energy development.
The creation of extensive new parks preserves and wilderness on
these lands is still an option, especially if there is support from local
While no doubt building a global conservation network will
occasionally entail displacement of humans just as we displace people
to make a highway or reservoir, there are other ways to achieve some
of the Half-Earth goals that do not require the involuntary removal
of people.
George Wuerthner
One useful measure is to eliminate or reduce resource extraction
in areas where productivity is low. In these areas, it requires many
acres of land to produce the same product in more fecund areas.
Resource exploitation is often only economical by ignoring the real
ecological damage from development. For example, over much of the
Great Plains, soil erosion due to farming is excessive; however, soil
loss is not included in the cost of the crops grown on these lands. If
these costs were internalised, much of the more marginal land uses
would no longer be suitable for exploitation.
Plus, the ecological damage from resource use is often more
significant in such areas.
For instance, in the Nevada desert, a cow may require up to 250
acres a year to sustain itself, while the same cow can be grown on an
acre or two in a moist, warm region like Georgia or Alabama.
Water is scarce in deserts. The water influenced areas known as
riparian areas are the focal point for 70-80% of all wildlife in desert
areas. But these are the same areas that cows congregate to obtain
water, green vegetation, and shade, often to the detriment of the
riparian areas and watershed. Thus, livestock utilisation of these
areas by livestock can have a disproportionate impact on biodiversity.
It would be more effective to grow a cow in Georgia, where there
would be fewer biodiversity losses.
There is a passive recovery of natural areas when inefficient land
uses are abandoned. For instance, by the late 1800s, 85% of Vermont’s
forests were cut over for farming and lumber. But there were better
lands for both growing livestock and crops and trees in other parts
of the country, and over time, the farms and timber operations were
abandoned, and the forests came back on their own. Today 80% of
Vermont is forested.
The subsequent reforestation led to the recovery of many wildlife
species extirpated due to either overhunting and/or habitat loss.
Wildlife, including moose, marten, fisher, and even lynx, once gone
from Vermont woodlands, are now relatively common.
A similar passive restoration is also possible over much of the
Great Plains. For decades, people have been fleeing the northern
Great Plains, and most of the counties in this region of Montana,
Rewilding on a Global Scale
North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming have far fewer people
today than in the early 1900s. Many of these counties now qualify as
“Frontier Counties” by definition of the 1890s census, which suggested
any area with fewer than 2 people per square mile was “frontier.”
With the decline of the human population, there is an opportunity
for significant natural ecosystem recovery. Efforts like the American
Prairie Reserve, which has acquired lands in eastern Montana and
restored bison, prairie dogs, and swift foxes, is an excellent example of
the opportunities that will increasingly occur in this region.
Given that much of the Northern and Central Great Plains is used
to grow feed for livestock such as feeder corn or soybeans, another
way to obtain more land for nature preserves is to eliminate or at least
reduce meat and dairy from our diet.
Across the US, some 130 million acres are in hay production and/
or pasture for livestock, 90 million acres more or less is used to grow
feeder corn, and another 75 million acres are used for soybeans. To
put this into perspective, Montana is 93 million acres in size, so this is
equivalent to three times the acreage of Montana.
These figures are gross amounts since some of the corn, soy, and
other crops may be used for direct human consumption or other
products like ethanol fuel in all cases. Nevertheless, the bulk of these
acres are growing crops to feed livestock. Thus, a reduction in meat
and dairy consumptions offers an incredible opportunity to restore
many parts of the American landscape. With this, and additional
points that I make above, similar considerations apply to many other
parts of the world.
A transition to renewable energy is also a necessary component
of any solution. As previously mentioned, fossil fuels are among the
leading sources of GHG emissions, not to mention the destruction
and fragmentation of wildlife habitat because of energy development
related roads, drill pads, and native vegetation clearing.
We cannot reasonably slow or reverse climate warming without
a global commitment to renewable energy. Fortunately, there are
numerous opportunities for reducing fossil fuel consumption,
including more efficient transportation, better insulation of buildings,
and expansion of geo-thermal energy, wind energy, and solar
George Wuerthner
energy—all of which are becoming more efficient and effective (Butler
and Wuerthner, 2012).
While current human population growth, along with rising GHG
emissions, poses the most long-term threat to both wildlands and
biodiversity, there are also opportunities to strive towards the goal of
protecting half of the Earth for biodiversity and other creatures. Not
only is this goal achievable, but it is essential if human life is to be
preserved at more than a survival existence. Furthermore, protecting
half of the Earth is also a moral and ethical obligation of human
Butler T and Wuerthner G. 2012. Energy—Overdevelopment and the
Delusion of Endless Growth.
Cafaro P and Crist E. 2012. Environmentalists Confront
Wuerthner G et al., 2014. Keeping the Wild—Against the Domestication
of the Earth.
Wuerthner G et al., 2015. Protecting the Wild—Parks, and Wilderness
the Foundation for Conservation.
Online resources
(Accessed November 2020).
nature-decline-unprecedented-report/ (Accessed November 2020).
3. (Accessed
November 2020).
climate-change-and-the-american-diet/2/ (Accessed November 2020).
5. ht t p s://w w w. sm it h s o n i a n m ag.c om /t r ave l /i s -t h e –
Rewilding on a Global Scale
crop%20cultivation (Accessed November 2020).
nature-decline-unprecedented-report/ (Accessed at November 2020).


  1. rastadoggie Avatar

    Fortress Preserves is right. When will the 30×30 money filter down to purchase the ridiculous inholdings with their long “driveways”(enormous high grade roads) degrading my local public land? Someone with a 5 acre piece wrecks and dominates huge swaths of wildness. It’s easy to see what needs protecting. Money and programs to disperse it now please.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner