A 2014 video report in The New York Times showed efforts to re-introduce the largest animal in Europe, which was hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century. Eight European bison (also known as wisent, but the bison name excites me in a way wisent cannot) had just been released into the wild. That tiny herd produced two calves and had one death, so their number stood at nine when the Times reported. Even as few as nine bison were facing pushback by claims that they carry disease and trample crops. Sound familiar?
When the Europeans started thinking about extinction, there were only about 50 animals left of a species that appeared on cave drawings as old as 36,000 B.C.E. Scientists had already learned that European bison could breed with cattle and with the American bison but, like in the U.S., they preferred to breed within the European bison if it could be done with such a small surviving population.
American Indians are veterans of the struggle to pull the American bison back from near extinction in the same time frame, the difference in North America being that the extinction was purposeful. Gen. Philip Sheridan famously stated the motive: “You kill the buffalo, you destroy the Indian’s commissary.”
So it was that the colonists attacked the giant herbivores with repeating rifles, skinned away their hides and left tall stacks of malodorous meat to rot on the prairies until the iconic beasts were reduced by nature’s scavengers to bones. The population of American bison has been estimated by biologists at sixty million in 1492. By the end of the shooting part of the Indian wars in 1890, that population was reduced to 750.
At first contact with the colonists, my people hunted buffalo, which ranged all the way to the Atlantic coast, although buffalo never took the central role in our culture it did for the Plains Indians. Our bogus removal treaty, New Echota, contained usufruct over a tract of land west of our reservation and just south of the Kansas border for the express purpose of buffalo hunting, a purpose that became vain with the near-extinction of the buffalo. The legal battles over separating my people from the “Cherokee Outlet” did not end until 1964. My father got, if memory serves, $2.36 as a per capita payment for his interest in the Cherokee Outlet.
While the American bison nearly succumbed as collateral damage in the Indian wars, the European bison was brought to the brink by overhunting and habitat destruction at around the same time. One of the bison’s major benefactors is Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, who enabled the effort to bring back the bison using his 32,000-acre expanse of family property in Bad Berleburg, Germany. We might call Prince Richard the Ted Turner of Europe, except that Mr. Turner wishes to introduce modern Americans to the delights of buffalo meat, and the German prince just wants to preserve the species.
The European bison benefits from the movement in Europe to “rewilding,” an organized attempt to recreate ecosystems that have been lost by reverse engineering. On the most simple level, rewilders restore big animals at the top of the food chain and watch the effects cascade down. On a more complex level, where few can tread, are efforts to recreate extinct species by selective breeding to reverse evolution or by directly altering genetic material. The Rewilding Europe Foundation aspires to return 2.4 million acres to pre Homo sapiens standards by concentrating on farmland that is becoming economically unsustainable.
The striking parallels between restoration of the bison in Europe and in North America are the first clues that the movement is worldwide, just as habitat destruction has been worldwide. In Great Britain, the rewilding movement was brought to higher visibility by George Monbiot’s book, Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life. Monbiot is more reporter than scientist, and so speaks to the broader audience that is necessary to give the idea political legs. Monbiot’s TED talk on rewilding is here.
With Monbiot’s book and Prince Richard’s release of European bison, it’s easy to mistake rewilding for a purely European phenomenon, which would make sense in light of the numbers of species Europe has lost to the symptoms of human being infestation, overhunting and habitat destruction. In fact, the rewilding partnership between science and popular culture is international in scope and very robust in the United States. The home base of the Rewilding Institute is in Albuquerque.
North America’s Feral would probably be Dave Foreman’s Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century, published in 2004. While the movement is worldwide, the goal is the same: restoration of lost or threatened ecosystems from the top down because preserving the creatures at the top of the food chain carries along the animals and plants that surrounded what used to be the dominant species.
The need for a sizable protected habitat means that rewilding often starts with a rich person — a Prince Richard or a Ted Turner — -for proof of the concept, before governments become involved. The size of the undertaking does require government or governments because sufficient habitat is seldom in private hands, as several examples show:
- Returning wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. needed the national park because wolves, unlike bison, won’t help a rich guy start a chain of steakhouses.
- Some people claim apex predator status for wolves, for grizzly bears, or for cougars — but H. sapiens proved to be the real apex predator, with guns trained on all three species in competition. As the predators died, the elk and deer multiplied and overgrazing became a problem. Grasses were insufficient for the expanded population and so young willows and aspens were consumed. Those trees were songbird habitat. For beavers, they were both food and building materials. Without beaver dams, erosion made streams deeper and more narrow and therefore not suitable for willows even if the elk quit eating them.
- Returning whales to the top of the food chain in the oceans, impossible without the International Whaling Commission, which would have to be invented if it did not exist. Now, if the Japanese would only join the effort.
- Recreating, by reverse genetic engineering, the auroch, extinct since the 17th century, and releasing it in European wildlife reserves.
- Preserving an animal as sacred to many indigenous peoples as the American bison, the jaguar, in Sonora, Mexico and in Arizona. The “jaguar corridor” where the big cats have room to roam did not cross into the U.S. when the original agreement was signed because the sacred cat was thought to be extinct here. Night vision camera traps have now identified at least two jaguars living in Arizona and rumors persist in the Texas Big Bend region but the rumors have not been verified. Conservationists worry that the wall proposed on the Mexico-U.S. border may, depending on its design, obstruct the jaguar corridor. The preservation of the jaguar brings together a long list of conservation organizations, private and governmental, in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as universities on both sides of the border. It is enabled by the fact that prime jaguar habitat land is lightly populated and therefore inexpensive to acquire. The primary human activity in the area is cattle ranching, and at some point ranchers will no doubt complain about jaguars taking their calves, a complaint that complicates efforts to protect mountain lions in the U.S.
It’s in North America that other animals sacred to many indigenous peoples, the plains bison (Bison bison bison) and the woodlands bison (Bison bison athabascae) form a parallel to bison restoration in Europe over a much greater land area. The two subspecies combined once ranged the Great Plains and much of the woodlands from Canada to Mexico, and remnant herds survive in the national and tribal reserves of all three colonial countries. The superiority of bison meat to beef has led to interbreeding with domestic cattle as an additional modern threat to bison survival.
Still, the American bison are at the center of the most ambitious rewilding project in the world, the Buffalo Commons. The idea originated, if you don’t count the prophesies of Plains Indian elders, in a 1987 essay published in Planning by Deborah and Frank Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust.”
The Poppers wrote that the intense farming and ranching of the Great Plains is not sustainable and that climate change will make it even less so. They point to the Dust Bowl in the past and the rapid depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in the present to argue that people have left and are continuing to leave out of economic necessity. Much of the land area is already under the population level that used to define the end of the “frontier,” six persons per square mile. The heart of the Buffalo Commons proposal is that the government should roll with the punches Mother Earth is throwing and return the land to prairie grasses and wildlife that do not require irrigation:
We believe that despite history’s warnings and environmentalists’ proposals, much of the Plains will inexorably suffer near-total desertion over the next generation. It will come slowly to most places, quickly to some; parts of Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Texas, especially those away from the interstates, strike us as likely candidates for rapid depopulation. The overall desertion will largely run its course. At that point, the only way to keep the Plains from turning into an utter wasteland, an American Empty Quarter, will be for the federal government to step in and buy the land — in short, to deprivatize it.
Indians are unlikely to ever join an exodus from lands they consider sacred and many Indians who have stayed have become unfortunately used to economic hardship. Tribal organizations have been key to preserving the buffalo to date, and the Intertribal Buffalo Council counts 63 tribes keeping over 20,000 bison. Some, if not all, of this tribal activity is driven by what Mark Tilsen, President of Native American Natural Foods, calls “Tanka Vision,” defined as “a modern, buffalo-based economy.”
This method of rewilding the Great Plains does not conflict with the idea of reintroducing the species at the top of the food chain to recreate the interdependent ecosystem that sustained that species. The top of the food chain on the Great Plains was the American Indian, and the key to the ecosystem that sustained him was the American bison.