Restoration of wolves in the Western Rewilding Network would help “heal” the West. Photo George Wuerthner 

A new study published in Bioscience proposes rewilding the West with a system of wildland reserves to restore the ecological integrity of the landscape. The proposal follows President Biden’s plan to manage 30 percent of the United States landscape for biodiversity and climate protection goals.

 

The plan called the Western Rewilding Network,” would set aside 11 large reserve areas. Livestock grazing impacts more western landscapes and species and thus would be terminated. According to the proposal, two keystone species: the gray wolf and the North American beaver, would be restored.

Willows and riparian vegetation improved by beaver. Beaverdam Creek, Yellowstone NP. Photo George Wuerthner 

Beaver are well-known for their ability to repair watersheds, increase water retention, reduce sedimentation, store carbon, and promote riparian vegetation. These are critical factors in an already arid, drought-impacted West where 70-80% of all species depend on the narrow band of green water-influenced foliage known as riparian areas.

 

Willows that have gain height and size due to wolf influence on browsing elk in Yellowstone NP. Photo George Wuerthner 

Wolves, as apex predators, influence ungulate (i.e., elk, deer) populations and habitat use, plus provide food as carrion for other species like ravens, eagles, coyotes, and bears. They have been shown to promote healthy riparian areas by reducing ungulate browsing and use.

Remains of bull elk killed by wolf pack, Yellowstone National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

In part due to these influences, as well as the reduction in livestock grazing, the authors believe the creation of this reserve system would benefit many of the 92 threatened and endangered species across nine taxonomic groups: five amphibians, five birds, two crustaceans, 22 fishes, 39 flowering plants, five insects, 11 mammals, one reptile, and two snail species. As a result, the list probably understates the benefit for species.

The reserve areas with the highest percentage of Endangered and Threatened Species were the Southern Rockies of Colorado and New Mexico and the Mogollon Plateau of Arizona and New Mexico. Not surprisingly, livestock grazing was the principal land use responsible for species endangerment. Indeed, in 7 of the 11 potential reserves, at least half of the listed species are threatened by livestock grazing.

The study was pulled together by lead author William Ripple, who has been a leader in alerting the world to the threats posed by climate change. The study also includes 19 co-authors, including, Christopher Wolf, Michael K Phillips, Robert L Beschta, John A Vucetich, J Boone Kauffman, Beverly E Law, Aaron J Wirsing, Joanna E Lambert, Elaine Leslie, Carly Vynne, Eric Dinerstein, Reed Noss, George Wuerthner, Dominick A DellaSala, Jeremy T Bruskotter, Michael Paul Nelson, Eileen Crist, Chris Darimont, and Daniel M Ashe. 

Public lands livestock is the largest factor in species endangerment in the West. Photo George Wuerthner 

If you are paying attention to predators, livestock grazing, conservation biology, land protection, climate, and ethical issues, these names should be familiar to readers.

Wolves currently occupy approximately 14% of its historic range across the West. Similarly, beaver have been reduced or extirpated from an estimated 90-98% of their former range.

The first step was to identify core wolf habitat on federal lands across the West that were a minimum of 5000 square kilometers or 1,235,527 acres. Corridors linking these core habitats were also mapped to preclude isolation and genetic inbreeding.

Next, the presence of threatened and endangered plant and animal species, including subspecies and distinct population segments, was identified with at least 10% of their ranges within any reserve. Then for each species, any threats from livestock grazing, logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling were determined.

Livestock grazing, logging, and oil and gas development all release Greenhouse Gas Emissions, so eliminating these uses from a significant portion of the West would aid the United States in reaching its climate goals.

In addition, the current effort of some western states such as Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to significantly reduce wolves on public lands would also need to be terminated.

Livestock grazing of riparian ares and wetlands has negatively impacted dozens of species across the West. Photo George Wuerthner

The plan would reduce existing livestock grazing on federal lands by 29% if implemented. In addition, the project proposes compensation for permanent grazing privilege permit retirement to minimize the economic impact on individuals. The cost to society of carbon emissions from public lands and livestock grazing is sufficient to justify such a buyout plan.

The authors recognize that this is an ambitious plan. Still, given the realities of the climate and biodiversity crisis we face, creating these 11 reserves would go a long way toward rewilding the West and reducing these ecological and planetary impacts. It is a plan whose time has come.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

25 Responses to Western Rewilding Network Proposal

  1. Glenn says:

    I disagree with your assumptions . As today’s liberals anyway say , prove it !

    • Hiker says:

      Which assumptions? Prove what? That Wolves are important to their ecosystem? That Beaver can do wonders? That most of the West is overgrazed (thanks FS, BLM, etc.)? All of that is old news if you are paying attention.

      And if proof is a liberal need what does that make the other side? Believers in non-sense?

  2. Laurinda Reinhart says:

    There is no mention of the restoration to these lands of bison, a top keystone species and restorer of native prairie.

  3. Pat says:

    Interesting article. I will pose the question of how the authors and this group would address the issue of (1) “eliminating the ranch culture” of the western US and the attendant psychosocial concerns and further depopulation of rural townships, and (2) how much money would be required (or reasonable)to pay out for these retirements (and why we cannot do that now).

    The payouts won’t address the first issue, so what type of alternative economic opportunities do folks suggest to those who are left behind? I think this has to be addressed for this idea to move forward.

  4. Ida Lupine says:

    Wonderful! 🙂

  5. Most people visiting western lands, notice and remark just how denuded they are–especially now as Climate Change and drought take firm hold. It is up to wildlife activists to educate as many as possible about what has been lost or severely impacted by those “harmless cows grazing so peacefully” where native wildlife once roamed.

  6. Beeline says:

    If the “ranch culture” ( at least those lessees that graze federal lands) was not thoroughly subsidized it would have eliminated itself years ago. The basic grazing fee of $1.35 per AUM of forage was once again set for 2022. It is the lowest possible charge allowable under the Taylor Grazing Act (1934). If one compensates for inflation back to 1934 it would be worth around 10 to 12 cents/AUM. A ridiculously low fee compared to that charged on private land which averaged $20.60/AUM in 2020. There is of course a whole host of other subsidies available to federal lessees.

    In a nutshell ranchers do not want thriving ecosystems. They want a crippled ecosystem devoid of just about anything that they think their cows are in competition with. Prairie dogs and even grasshoppers included. Thousands of coyotes and hundreds of wolves are killed each year to satisfy this lust for hammering public lands in the name ranching in the ‘old west’. The blood bath still goes on.

    So some of us are really tired of seeing our tax money go to failing cattle enterprises rather than ecosystems with a full complement of wildlife species. I have seen enough cows. I want to see an ecosystem on public land that is complete and functioning.

  7. GreenThumb says:

    Very compelling argument to restore water in the drying west.

  8. Dave Stricklan says:

    They missed the Yellowstone to Central Idaho Wildlife Corridor. Didn’t include it despite it being on public land and being inhabited by wolves. I’m sure that they had a fine model but this just points out the problems of modeling in the lab rather than – well asking the wolves.

    This paper will be a citation classic so the error will be compounded by other lab biologists over time.

  9. Nancy says:

    Sad news on so many levels. Even sadder? There is no longer a regular post on The Wildlife News site for Do You Have Some Interesting Wildlife News? Strange given the title of the website – The Wildlife News.

    https://www.npr.org/2022/08/14/1117442197/norway-euthanize-walrus-freya-oslo

  10. Ida Lupine says:

    Wasn’t sure where to post, but thought it needs to be read. Killing Golden Eagles now to save them later, I just can’t get on board with, and with, at one time, proposed 30-year exemptions for wind from bird protection laws, it could “potentially” spell extinction:

    “Ground zero in the conflict is Wyoming, a stronghold for golden eagles that soar on seven-foot wings and a favored location for wind farms. As wind turbines proliferate, scientists say deaths from collisions could drive down golden eagle numbers considered stable at best and likely to drop in some areas.

    Yet climate change looms as a potentially greater threat: Rising temperatures are projected to reduce golden eagle breeding ranges more than 40% later this century, according to a National Audubon Society analysis”.

    https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-08-17/wind-energy-boom-and-golden-eagles-collide-in-the-u-s-west

    • Robert Goldman says:

      I’m with you, Ida. These massive industrial wind turbines kill thousands of eagles and ecologically important bats. Pres. Obama who had no problem with the mass killing of ecologically vital, unjustly persecuted wolves, also made it easy to kill tens of thousands of eagles and bats. Industrial wind turbines are a destructive blight on the land and rarely generate the energy their moonie promoters claim. Better to go with solar, geothermal and perhaps even 21st century nuclear.

      • Ida Lupine says:

        Thank you.

        I worry for all birds with these things. The fall migration is coming, avian flu has taken off, and an entire host of obstacles and dangers for bird life.

        This is just one more, and I don’t really see that it is going to do much for climate change either.

        When and how much? Are there any studies done, any projections of how it will affect birds before we proceed full steam ahead? That was all once going to be kept as a ‘trade secret’.

        The parameters are too vague, and as usual, we only put our own needs first.

        • Larry M Keeney says:

          Ida,
          I’ve become a pessimist and unless a human virus reduces our numbers or lifestyle wildlife will continue to shrink into extinction. Looking back (as far as you want to), humans have pushed or eliminated wildlife in order to satisfy greed. You know that and all right-minded environmentalists know that and it will not stop on its own. We slow it down a little now and then with roadblocks mainly through the judicial system but like water going downhill it finds a way around. The best we can do is champion judicial challenges and try to educate each new generation as to the value of wildness. Good luck with that in the red states! But now with the human caused climate crisis we even have nature itself working against the natural system. Attempts to mediate the hardships on the majority populations of humans that are suffering the most is where our money should also go. When human populations suffer the last thing they consider in their life challenges is care for naturalness. Sorry bout the downbeat but that’s where I am after nearly 8 decades of seeing/living history.

    • Marc Bedner says:

      Yes, this story on golden eagles should get more attention. Fortunately, several newspapers have picked this up, including the Santa Fe New Mexican.
      Probably just me, but when I saw this story, I couldn’t help thinking of New Mexico’s liberal Democratic U.S. Senator-for-Life Martin Heinrich. A darling of the Sierra Club and hunter-conservationists, Heinrich is a staunch advocate of lead shot and wind turbines, the two biggest killers of golden eagles.

      • Rosemary Lowe says:

        Absolutely! It is appalling how the so-called “wildlife/conservation” groups continue to genuflect to Heinrich, who does not touch the issue of his contribution to lead shot poisoning of eagles and other precious, dwindling wildlife populations. He is just another sell out who happens to be a Democrat. He also is heavily involved in the Los Alamos area Nuke development. Wind turbines are also being pushed off the coast of Maine–many are worried about the migratory bird populations if this Industrial Wind goes through. What we humans are not grasping is: all the “techno fixes” we have will NOT STOP HUMAN-CAUSED CLIMATE CHANGE.

  11. Chris Zinda says:

    Nowhere in the report does it mention preservation nor does it state that the Biden Admin expressly defined and rejected it in 30×30. Is there no preserved core from which the corridor tendrils of rewilding reach? When places are rewilded, will they be conserved or preserved? There is no discussion.

    Consider.

    I would guess most of the authors would say USFS wildlife refuges, designated Wilderness and some NPS sites constitute the ‘core’. As such, each are defined/constrained by their legislative language and corresponding ‘intent’. And, so are each unit (ex: Yellowstone, Hart Mountain NWR, Bob Marshall), as each have their own enabling legislation that govern their management.

    Refuges are governed by conservation largely for hunting and fishing purposes. They are also hammered by agriculture via direct land use or water law and industrial recreation. The word ‘refuge’ another example of conflated semantic. They are governed expressly by their unit enabling legislation. Ex: GW has a story regarding the removal of cattle from Hart Mountain due to impacts to antelope. Some refuges do preserve and most of these are maritime based.

    Wilderness I already discussed in Delegislating, hammered by industrial recreation, including hunting and fishing. The Wilderness Act expressly speaks of preservation in the first sentence along with the pressures of humanity,

    “Mindful of our “increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization,” Congress passed the 1964 Wilderness Act in order to preserve and protect certain lands “in their natural condition” and thus “secure for present and future generations the benefits of wilderness.” 11 U.S.C. § 1131(a).”

    It also includes the word ‘untrammeled’ – as close preservation as you can get.

    Yet, because there is no sidebar (my criticism of the rewilding plan and the enviro movement in general), conservationists do not litigate to mandate a no compromised core. And they’re trammelled, meaning you know they are a compromised core to any rewilding.

    The NPS is governed by conservation, expressly, and industrial recreation and hospitality rule.

    “The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. (U.S.C., title 16, sec. 1.)”

    NPS sites trammelled and most completely lost as a core, even Yellowstone.

    Now, imagine a wing of the environmental movement with a no compromise preservation sidebar. They’d litigate the Wilderness Act, demand through unit specific legislation that refuges were just that, and propose legislation for entire Departments and their bureaus like the NPS and its Organic Act to read,

    “which purpose is to preserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein….”

    I imagine it.

    I imagine wolves, bears, grayling in Yellowstone being preserved, Antelope in Hart and Sheldon, the Gila to Dark Canyon.

    • Rosemary Lowe says:

      The is a Bureaucratic Merry-Go-Round which is perpetuated & excused by long- entrenched practices–which always includes grazing somewhere in the picture. The Grazing Industry has a big influence in all this. Until grazing is completely removed from all public lands, nothing much will change. Climate change is starting to take hold, causing the grazing industry problems, as western lands and waters dry up, but will the demise of this environmentally destructive industry happen quickly enough?

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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