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Rewilding the American West

More wolves and beavers are needed to improve western US habitats, scientists say
Grey wolf

As the effects of climate change mount, ecosystem restoration in the US West has garnered significant public attention, bolstered by President Joe Biden’s America the Beautiful plan to conserve 30% of US land and water by 2030.

Writing in BioScience, William J. Ripple and 19 colleagues follow up on the Biden plan with a proposal for a ‘Western Rewilding Network’, comprising 11 large reserve areas already owned by the federal government.

Beavers and wolves

The authors advocate for the cessation of livestock grazing on some federal lands, coupled with the restoration of two keystone species: the grey wolf and the North American beaver.

Wolves and beavers, according to the authors, are notable for their ability to produce broad ecosystem effects. For instance, they say, ‘by felling trees and shrubs and building dams, beavers enrich fish habitat, increase water and sediment retention, maintain water flows during drought, provide wet fire breaks, improve water quality, initiate recovery of incised channels, increase carbon sequestration, and generally enhance habitat for many riparian plant and animal species.’

‘Beaver restoration is a cost-effective way to repair degraded riparian areas’, said co-author Robert Beschta, professor emeritus in the OSU College of Forestry. ‘Riparian areas occupy less than 2% of the land in the West but provide habitat for up to 70% of wildlife species.’

Similarly, wolf restoration offers significant ecological benefits by helping to naturally control native ungulates such as elk, according to the authors. They say wolves facilitate regrowth of vegetation species such as aspen, which supports diverse plant and animal communities and is declining in the West, and ‘could assist in the natural control of overabundant native ungulates’, allowing native vegetation to regrow in previously degraded areas.

Supporting threatened species

Grey wolves were hunted to near extinction in the West but were reintroduced to parts of the northern Rocky Mountains and the Southwest, starting in the 1990s, through measures made possible by the Endangered Species Act.

‘Still, the grey wolf’s current range in those 11 states is only about 14% of its historical range’, said co-lead author Christopher Wolf, a postdoctoral scholar in the College of Forestry. ‘They probably once numbered in the tens of thousands, but today there might only be 3,500 wolves across the entire West.’

Beaver populations, once robust across the West, declined roughly 90% after settler colonialism and are now nonexistent in many streams, meaning ecosystem services are going unprovided, the authors say.

The rewilding plan would produce profound cascading effects, say the authors, and could ultimately 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.’

Compensating livestock farmers

The paper identifies areas, each at least 5,000 square kilometres, of contiguous, federally managed lands containing prime wolf habitat. The states in the proposed Western Rewilding Network, which would cover nearly 500,000 square kilometres, are Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The authors cite a number of costs to their bold initiative, including payments to any livestock farmers, who should get just reimbursement for lost grazing allotments on federal lands.

‘We suggest the removal of grazing on federal allotments from approximately 285,000 square kilometres within the rewilding network, representing 29% of the total 985,000 square kilometres of federal lands in the 11 western states that are annually grazed’, Beschta said. ‘That means we need an economically and socially just federal compensation programme for those who give up their grazing permits. Rewilding will be most effective when participation concerns for all stakeholders are considered, including Indigenous people and their governments.’

Ripple and colleagues argue that these challenges will ultimately prove navigable, in part because meat derived from forage on federal lands accounts for only about 2% of the nation’s production.

Furthermore, say the authors, the time is ripe for ‘ultra ambitious action’, given the ‘unprecedented period of converging crises in the American West, including extended drought and water scarcity, extreme heat waves, massive fires triggered at least partly by climate change, and biodiversity loss.’

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