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.

12 Responses to “What Is Rewilding?”

  1. AnnJanuary 27, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Your Agenda 21 philosophy doesn’t fly with me. Although you admit that in some areas rewilding is “not feasible,” the idea of putting more animals dangerous to children, pets and livestock anywhere near farms or communities strikes a bit of fear in my heart. And no, I’m not some silly ignorant city person. I am a long-time camper, in fact camped for our honeymoon–and have always considered myself to be an “environmentalist,” agreeing that arctic wolves should be in the arctic, we shouldn’t pollute, and all the rest. However, I have also raised sheep and poultry, and have seen the results of a wild animal having a “feast” on OUR animals. I am also concerned that your ultimate goal is to use our already too-far reaching government to shove people into cities, remove private ownership of land (one of the basic foundations of our free nation), and make us even more slaves to the State than we already are–all in the name of saving the “wilderness.” And removing God from the picture totally. I love nature, yes, but destroying the freedom and safety of human beings, and rejecting the statement of God that we are to have dominion over all things–this is not right. You go too far.

  2. DionApril 4, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    In regards with what Ann had to say,”God has nothing to do with it!” Leave religion out of it.
    Stop using God as an excuse for raping the natural world! because God delights not in the blood of lambs but in a repentant heart! just to argue the point on your limited level.

    Please Ann, don’t misunderstand, I mean no offense but without nature in it’s entirety we will not survive as a species, surely you must see this. We are every where and leave no place for all of the other animals and plants that share our world. Why would God want that? I’m only asking you to keep your mind open to new possibility. Our plunder and use of the natural world which we are not above but a part of, is shameful.
    Should we choose to act out of greed and want or do we temper our judgement with compassion and understanding? This is the only path to true enlightenment. Just consider it.

  3. Mary LivingstonApril 6, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    We do need to consider ways and means for humans to survive when nature has been more properly restored. I think “dominion” was supposed to be translated as “caretakers”, which humans have done a poor job. The natural world was created with diversity to maintain its beauty. Research in to the restorative benefits of having the full gamut of natural (for the time) species has been shown in several re-introduction studies.

    The wild mustangs that are now corralled and being considered for slaughter only need the natural predators of big cats to take care of thinning them out. Humans need not enter that dirty business. Surely we don’t want zoos to be the only acceptable places for animals?

    On a “green” note, it has been studied and confirmed that cities are more appropriate for humans. More opportunities for shared support, consolidation of cultural resources, and potential for sharing the land with the rest of creation.

    I DO hope the Rewilding Institute will make a statement on the latest slaughter threat: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=65&projectID=49574&documentID=58438. More natural predators would remove humans from this equation.

  4. Jim HerrickAugust 5, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    I have very much enjoyed all your books and now am looking forward to True Wilderness. When will it be published? Cheers! Jim Herrick

  5. Marina QueiroloJanuary 24, 2016 at 8:55 am #

    … the key to Re Wilding is that we are ALL part of nature and natural cycles. Nature includes wild animals and humans integrated. For that we have to re educate humans and build their skill on how to live together. It was done before. The first step is to recognize is the importance and correlation of both… I love the concept of “Re Wilding is the ultimate weapon in the fight against fragmentation.” We are ONE earth, nature, ecology, environment, wild, un wild, humans, Terra, Gaia or how ever we want to call it. We cannot manufacture landscapes without understanding the full impact of our actions and find way to minimize them.


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