Rewilding at Many Scales: A Book Review Essay by John Miles
Dave Foreman, in his landmark 2004 book Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century, makes a convincing case that “To make protected areas more effective, conservationists must now (1) work on very large landscapes, probably continental in scope, and (2) undertake ecological restoration based on rewilding.” He advocated a science-based approach to protecting and creating a network of “core wild areas, wildlife movement linkages, and compatible use lands to meet habitat needs of wide-ranging species, maintain natural disturbance regimes, and permit dispersal and reestablishment of wildlife following natural events such as fires.” Dave was thinking big, though of course he was working at all landscape scales. In 2018, he has been working on a local rewilding project in the Sandia Mountains near his Albuquerque home. Since he wrote this book, much thought and action has been invested in pursuing this vision and some progress made on large scale initiatives like Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y), Yellowstone to Uintas (Y to U), and Algonquin to Adirondack (A2A).
In this essay I address the question of whether rewilding should be seen only as a large-scale effort or whether it should be pursued at many scales; and, in so doing, I highlight recent books that describe what might be considered rewilding at various scales. I do this as a participant in the work of the Rewilding Institute, an organization formed by Dave Foreman to advance his ideas about rewilding North America. If we define rewilding only at the large and abstract scale of continental conservation, might we miss an opportunity to connect people at smaller scales to the effort? In their recent book The Future of Conservation in America: A Chart for Rough Waters, former National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis and his science adviser, Gary Machlis, argue that conservation must be made relevant to all Americans as a “foundation for building enduring support for conservation.” They define relevance in this context as “when an individual, family, or group makes a personal connection with a physical place that evokes a potent emotional response.” My argument here is that rewilding at continental scale, regional scale, even local scale will increase the likelihood of this work becoming relevant to people but especially at smaller scales where people can identify with the results of rewilding. As well, rewilding at any scale contributes to Foreman’s vision of rewilding at the large landscape scale, the cumulative effect of rewildings large and small.
My thinking about this was stimulated by my reading of recently published books: Joe Riis, Yellowstone Migrations (Seattle, Braided River, 2017); Matthew Kauffman, et al, Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming Ungulates (Corvallis, Oregon State University Press, 2018); Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2018); and Scott Freeman, Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2018.) All of these books describe, in my view, rewilding. They may not all involve Foreman’s core wild areas, but they describe work based on science and efforts to enhance wildlife movement across landscapes. They promote land use compatible to the needs of wide-ranging species. Some of these species, like elk, pronghorn, and mule deer in the Yellowstone region, and salmon in the Pacific Northwest, are very wide-ranging. Beavers may not range widely but as a keystone species enhancing habitats, they help the wide rangers and restore natural processes on the land.
In Yellowstone Migrations, photographer Joe Riis presents absolutely stunning photographs of migrating pronghorn, deer, and elk. Research has shown that these ungulates migrate much farther than anyone thought, mule deer and pronghorn all the way from Wyoming’s Red Desert to the northern end of the Wyoming Range south of Jackson. The pronghorn migration is the longest land mammal migration in the United States. Elk migrate all over the Greater Yellowstone area, and scientists have mapped their routes. All of the migrations are fraught with peril. Yellowstone Migrations photos graphically document the need for just the sort of rewilding Dave Foreman advocates. In the core essay of this book titled “A New Vision for Yellowstone: An Ecosystem Defined by Migration,” environmental journalist Emilene Ostlind provides a history of and primer on migration ecology, a landscape-scale emphasis in wildlife ecology that has recently increased understanding of the nature and importance of migrations. Scientists have mapped migration routes of ungulates in the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem using thousands of GPS coordinates collected by researchers. Yellowstone Migrations describes in text, maps, and especially in photographs, migration routes of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn.
After enjoying Riis’s photography and the brief essays in Yellowstone Migrations, I turned to the definitive work on the Wyoming Migration Initiative by Matthew J. Kauffman and colleagues titled Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates. Wildlife ecologist Kauffman, studying herbivory and predation in Yellowstone, became aware that migration of ungulates in the area was a big story that needed research to understand many wildlife dynamics in the region.
Working with my graduate students, we learned how drought was reducing the forage available to migratory elk near Cody, Wyoming, and how the small herd of Teton sheep had lost its migration. And we were starting to understand how changes to Wyoming’s landscapes were making the migrations more difficult. Migrating wildlife need vast swaths of connected habitat. Even now, we don’t know how many holes we can punch in these corridors before migrating wildlife will abandon their traditional movements, but we are certain that ever-expanding roads, fences, houses, and well pads make it harder for animals to migrate and reduce the benefits these seasonal journeys provide.
The challenge was to precisely map the migration routes to identify threats and plan conservation actions that might allow the migrations to be sustained. Kauffman decided an atlas was the ideal way to report on the migration research because such a reference “would show where migrations remained intact and where work would be needed to protect them.” He emphasized reference because the information gathered would not just be of academic interest but also accessible to agencies, conservation groups, transportation planners, and oil and gas developers, among others.
The atlas is a remarkable publication, its large format profusely illustrated with maps, graphs, charts, and brief explanatory text accompanying them. It is divided into sections; background on migration and the animals studied, history, science, threats, and conservation. The migration maps are stunning. For instance, one map of mule deer migrations presents routes between Le Barge, Wyoming and the northern Salt River Range, and includes winter and summer ranges, stopovers, and low and high use corridors. Researchers put collars on 35 deer and collected 5 to 12 data points daily year-round, building a huge database. Researchers organized and analyzed the database, and GIS cartographers present it in astonishing map form.
The importance of this work for rewilding is obvious. The more we know where the migration corridors are, the better we will be able to protect them. Definitive migration maps will provide strong rationales for conservation in the corridors. The most exciting quality of the atlas and the work behind it is the new methodologies it demonstrates, tools for rewilding that were not very advanced when Foreman wrote Rewilding North America. Corridors for connectivity, dispersal, and migration are the cornerstone of rewilding – allowing wildlife to roam across landscapes. Discovery of long migration routes adds to understanding of the importance of corridors. It also adds to relevance as defined above, because people living around such corridors can see them on the land, be they citizen conservationists, sportsmen, or even developers. One last thought about Wild Migrations – while it is a Wyoming atlas, it reveals a need and an opportunity to map wildlife movements across large landscapes. We have the tools, and rewilders need to advocate for more of this type of work.
Moving on down the rewilding scale, Ben Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, describes the decline and restoration of the beaver on the American landscape (and a bit of Europe). Traveling North America from Canada to New Mexico, from Massachusetts to Oregon, Goldfarb recounts how Castor canadensis has been trapped to near extinction, rallied and returned only to be considered a nuisance and trapped again. He explains the history of the great aquatic rodent’s resilience, how it has recently exceeded what he calls the “cultural carrying capacity” in many places, and various responses people have made to the damage it is perceived they do. He also explains how the beaver can do much good for natural systems across its range, and the many efforts “beaver believers” have made to restore the beaver as a way to rejuvenate waterways. He describes the cascading ecological effects beaver can have on natural systems that were degraded by past removal of beavers.
Relative to rewilding, Goldfarb quotes George Monbiot who, in his book Feral, defines rewilding as a recognition that “nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment.” Goldfarb writes that “Fundamental to Monbiot’s version of rewilding is allowing ecosystems to shape their own destinies, rather than micromanaging them. By that standard, beavers, which drive ecological processes like no other creature and bend to no person’s will, are rewilding’s poster species.” Rewilding is not a major theme of Goldfarb’s book, but it clearly demonstrates how restoration of a keystone species across many landscapes can be a powerful building block in restoring and protecting wildlife habitat essential to the rewilding process.
The final book in this review takes rewilding to a very local level, which is often how beavers play into the picture. In fact, in Scott Freeman’s Saving Tarboo Creek, beaver plays a role in the long project to restore this salmon-bearing stream on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Tarboo Creek, only 7.5 miles long, was ditched or diverted and its surrounding wetlands drained. Salmon once ran into the creek to spawn, but disturbances of natural stream flow then blocked their entry. Scott Freeman and his wife Susan, a granddaughter of Aldo Leopold, bought an 18-acre parcel that straddled the creek, and inspired by Aldo’s example in Wisconsin, set out to restore the creek. First, they restored meanders, hiring an excavator experienced in such work. They put down coir to control erosion of the freshly cut banks, then turned water into the reengineered stream. They planted trees, aware that in restoring the stream they were “fighting a thousand years of history.”
Biologist Freeman, his wife Susan, and family and friends who all pitched in to do the muddy work on the land, watched the stream heal and salmon return. The Freemans bought a tract of forest near the creek in honor of Carl Leopold, Aldo’s son and Susan’s father who had helped with the project and passed in 2009. As the work on the creek progressed over the years, beavers returned and started cutting the trees the restoration crew had so laboriously planted. This posed a problem, but Freeman writes “if your goal is to live with the land instead of just on it, you have to accept the organisms that live there more or less on their own terms.” They wrapped trees they wished to save, and eventually the beavers dammed the creek and created a pond. Freeman writes:
So beavers are now a feature. The pond they created drowned big trees and shrubs we enjoyed, and even some we planted, but the deaths created snags that attract pileated woodpeckers and red-breasted sapsuckers. The open water has brought in kingfishers, great blue herons, mallards, and wood ducks; it’s a paradise for frogs and aquatic insects.6
Over the 18 years of their project on Tarboo Creek, nature’s resilience has been clear. Freeman further observes:
If you were designing the perfect salmon stream, then it would start with long stretches of relatively fast-moving water close to the headwaters that provide gravelly spawning habitat. Downstream, there would be even longer stretches of rearing habitat, with a meandering channel broken by a series of beaver ponds.7
Tarboo Creek is an example of rewilding at a small scale. Perhaps it involves a bit more micromanaging than Monbiot would approve, but the Freemans demonstrate in their project a local rewilding that became very relevant, in the sense mentioned earlier, to many people in the area.
Just as I think wildness and wilderness exist at many landscape scales, so I think we rewilders should think of work that can be done for rewilding on similar scales. The recent books mentioned in this essay demonstrate that the work of rewilding is in fact occurring at many scales, but it is perhaps not perceived as part of the grand rewilding project as presented in Dave Foreman’s Rewilding North America. My view is that if rewilding is to be achieved, it must be sought at every opportunity whether that be on the scale of Wyoming or of beavers in Tarboo Creek and other streams across North America. Concluding his book, Ben Goldfarb observes that “Beavers have thoroughly colonized many of our landscapes; reaping the full benefits of their transformative powers will require coexisting with them on millions of acres more.” He quotes the author J.B. MacKinnon who has written, “The conservation of the common represents a deeper ambition than the 20th century’s lopsided division of the world into islands of wild. . . . It calls on us to integrate conservation into every aspect of human life.” A large order, but rewilding can and must be a part of this.
1 Dave Foreman, Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004, p. 4.
3 Matthew J. Kauffman, Preface, Wild Migrations, p. xvi.
4 Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, p. 217.
5 Scott Freeman, Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land, p. 77.
6 Saving Tarboo Creek, p.149.
7 Saving Tarboo Creek, p. 148.
David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, gave a talk at Dartmouth College in 1965 on the threat of dams to Grand Canyon National Park. John, a New Hampshire native who had not yet been to the American West, was flabbergasted. “What Can I do?” he asked. Brower handed him a Sierra Club membership application, and he was hooked, his first big conservation issue being establishment of North Cascades National Park.
After grad school at the University of Oregon, John landed in Bellingham, Washington, a month before the park was created. At Western Washington University he was in on the founding of Huxley College of Environmental Studies, teaching environmental education, history, ethics and literature, ultimately serving as dean of the College.
He taught at Huxley for 44 years, climbing and hiking all over the West, especially in the North Cascades, for research and recreation. Author and editor of several books, including Wilderness in National Parks, John served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Washington Forest Practices Board, and helped found and build the North Cascades Institute.
Retired and now living near Taos, New Mexico, he continues to work for national parks, wilderness, and rewilding the earth.