What Is Rewilding?

(Adapted from Dave Foreman’s Rewilding North America)

Six areas of recent ecological research—extinction dynamics, island biogeography, metapopulation theory, natural disturbance ecology, top-down regulation by large carnivores, and landscape-scale ecological restoration—are the foundation for all informed protected area design. They are brought together in the idea and scientific approach of rewilding, developed by Michael Soulè in the mid-1990s. Rewilding is “the scientific argument for restoring big wilderness based on the regulatory roles of large predators,” according to Soulè and Reed Noss in their landmark 1998 Wild Earth article “Rewilding and Biodiversity.”

Three major scientific arguments constitute the rewilding argument and justify the emphasis on large predators. First, the structure, resilience, and diversity of ecosystems is often maintained by “top-down” ecological (trophic) interactions that are initiated by top predators. Second, wide-ranging predators usually require large cores of protected landscape for foraging, seasonal movements, and other needs; they justify bigness. Third, connectivity is also required because core reserves are typically not large enough in most regions; they must be linked to insure long-term viability of wide-ranging species.…In short, the rewilding argument posits that large predators are often instrumental in maintaining the integrity of ecosystems. In turn, the large predators require extensive space and connectivity.

If native large carnivores have been killed out of a region, their reintroduction and recovery is the heart of a conservation strategy. Wolves, cougars, lynx, wolverines, grizzly and black bears, jaguars, sea otters, and other top carnivores need to be restored throughout North America in ecologically effective densities in their natural ranges where suitable habitat remains or can be restored. (Obviously, large areas of North America have been so modified by humans and support such large human populations or intensive agriculture that rewilding is not feasible.) Without the goal of rewilding for large areas with large carnivores, we are closing our eyes to what conservation really means—and demands. Disney cinematographer Lois Crisler, after years of filming wolves in the Arctic, wrote, “Wilderness without animals is dead—dead scenery. Animals without wilderness are a closed book.”

Soulè and Noss “recognize three independent features that characterize contemporary rewilding:

• Large, strictly protected core reserves (the wild)

• Connectivity

• Keystone species.

In shorthand, these are “the three C’s: Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores.”

Although Soulè and Noss state, “Our principal premise is that rewilding is a critical step in restoring self-regulating land communities,” they claim two non-scientific justifications: (1) “the ethical issue of human responsibility,” and (2) “the subjective, emotional essence of ‘the wild’ or wilderness. Wilderness is hardly ‘wild’ where top carnivores, such as cougars, jaguars, wolves, wolverines, grizzlies, or black bears have been extirpated. Without these components, nature seems somehow incomplete, truncated, overly tame. Human opportunities to attain humility are reduced.”

When we kill off big cats, wolves, and other wild hunters, we lose not only prominent species, but also the key ecological and evolutionary process of top-down regulation. Restoring large carnivores is essential for landscape-level ecological restoration, as is the restoration of other highly interactive species, and natural processes such as fire and flood.

Because many conservation groups, scientists, and agencies are involved in small-scale restoration and local biodiversity protection, The Rewilding Institute’s emphasis is on rewilding as the means for landscape and continental restoration.

Rewilding is a landmark for the wilderness conservation movement as well as for those primarily concerned with protecting biological diversity. Soulè and others have crafted the scientific basis for the need to protect and restore big wilderness-area complexes. Here science buttresses the wants and values of wilderness recreationists. Big wilderness areas are not only necessary for inspiration and a true wilderness experience, but are necessary for the protection and restoration of ecological integrity and native species diversity.

(Adapted from Rewilding North America by Dave Foreman [Chapter 8]. Copyright © 2004 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. Quotes are from the books and papers below.)

See also the Wildlife Recovery Vision page.


Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century by Dave Foreman (Island Press 2004). Order from The Rewilding Institute.

Continental Conservation: Scientific Foundations of Regional Reserve Networks edited by Michael E. Soulè and John Terborgh (Island Press 1999). Order from The Rewilding Institute.


Available as PDF:

Available in a book listed above:

Michael E. Soulè and John Terborgh, “The Policy and Science of Regional Conservation,” Chapter 1 in Continental Conservation.

PDFs not yet available:

Michael Soulè and Reed Noss, “Rewilding and Biodiversity as Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation,” Wild Earth, Fall 1998, 22. Will soon be available as a PDF.

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