Pleistocene Dreams

EVERY KID IN THE U.S. knows and cares about dinosaurs, but few have even heard of the Shasta ground sloth, let alone its contemporaries: American mastodons, western camels, Mexican horses, and American cheetahs and lions. Roughly thirteen thousand years ago, six dozen North American species over a hundred pounds went extinct. Human hunters probably played a part in their demise.

Three years ago my colleagues and I proposed restoring megafauna to North America using ecological history as a guide. Our idea: re-create the missing ecological functions and evolutionary potential of lost megafauna by using closely related species as analogues. It turns out the horses, camels, and cheetahs in Africa and Asia today are closely related to vanished North American counterparts. In fact, today’s “African lion” is the same species that once roamed North America. The social and ecological challenges of bringing megafauna back to North America are monumental, but so are the potential benefits.

Large animals maintain biodiversity through their interactions with other species. Elephants knock down trees and create new habitat. Lions regulate prey populations by eating them and affect their behavior by creating landscapes of fear. Similarly, wolves alter the vegetation by changing where elk go to forage, and these changes in vegetation patterns influence migratory birds. Wolves may even dictate the ability of other animals to survive by providing carcasses to scavenge when times are tough. Such pervasive influences appear to be the norm for megafauna, which means that bygone big animals were critical cogs in the wheels of North American ecosystems.

Those critical cogs are also missing from North Americans’ psyches. While we often fear them, we love megafauna. Anthropologist Paul Shepard wrote at length about our deep relationship with large animals, and how that relationship extends back tens of thousands of years. He believed there are important reasons why children’s books are filled with large animals. Given that children in the U.S. now spend 80 percent of their free time in front of television and computer screens, what are the psychological consequences to North Americans of losing touch with flesh-and-blood versions of the continent’s bygone megafauna?

The consequences to North Americans of losing such a colossal component of our natural heritage are rarely considered. Restoring megafauna to this continent will mean risking unexpected consequences. Some of those risks can be mitigated with sound science; others will be surprises revealed only by trial and error. Yet in the coming century, by default or design, our society will decide what and how much biodiversity we will coexist with. We now live in a world of decaying ecosystems, where humans increasingly lack any relationship with nature. Meanwhile, biodiversity conservation is focused on managing extinction instead of actively restoring natural processes. Maybe bringing megafauna back to North America could jumpstart a more proactive vision of biodiversity conservation, while also helping to reconnect people with nature.

My grandchildren likely will grow up in a world where videophilia trumps biophilia, and will almost surely know polar bears solely from DVDs. Perhaps we can do better, and our ecological history could help. Perhaps we can accept the risks and take the bold actions needed to bring back the megafauna. As biologist Geerat Vermeij stated, “A risk-free world is a very dull world, one from which we are apt to learn little of consequence.”


  1. I love this vision. But I can’t help placing its fulfillment in the far future after the demise of industrial civilization and a die-off of human populations due to resource shortages (oil and gas, fresh water, fertile soils, metals, forests, etc.). These, my friends, are the preoccupations and obstacles that we are likely to face for the next seven generations and more.

    Maybe the megafauna can help restore the damaged ecosystems in North America and elsewhere, IF there are any megafauna left after the ravages of this century. That’s a big ‘if,’ given climate change and the current rate of extinctions.

    In the Ecozoic Era that will follow the end of Cenozoic Era that humans are now bringing to a close, it is likely that the only human survivors will be those with some ecological sense – those humans who have learned the lessons and understand the value to the commons of the megafauna, as our indigenous ancestors did. But we have a long way to go before we get there.

    In short, I think that any conservation and restoration strategies have to connect the dots of Peak Oil, economic meltdown, climate chaos, food shortages, and the political pathologies that we will have to wade through on our way to a sustainable future. Let’s hope that some viable human and nonhuman gene pools survive all that.

  2. The idea of rewilding is actually older than Michael Soule and Reed Noss’s suggestion which appeared in the fall 1998 edition of Wild Earth. William Stolezenburg traces its development in Chapter 10 [‘Dead Creatures Walking’] of his brand new book WHERE THE WILD THINGS WERE (Bloomsbury USA, 2008).

    I think the origins of ‘rewilding’ go back to 1989 with the suggestion by urban planner Frank Popper and his Anthropologist wife Deborah that the High Plains (which are still depopulating at an alarming rate: 3% of the U.S. pop in 1989; 1% today) be returned to their pre-columbian state as a ‘Buffalo Commmons’, a wild grassland frontier preserved in perpetuity for North American grazing animals. Their wonderfully readable article ‘The Great Plains From Dust to Dust’ is now available on the Internet at this site:

    The intellectual provenance of this idea is important since the Popper’s suggestion was first welcomed with all the warmth of people walking into a bank with handguns. Since then, however, it has entered the intellectual mainstream and is being seriously considered today. There is already a prototype park in southern Sasketchewan in the area where Sitting Bull crossed over the 49th parallel into ‘the grandmother’s country’. It is called ‘Grasslands National Park’ and is as successful as a small, limited range can be.

    Rewilding may yet take place throughout North America. I don’t know if we will get elephants and camels as proxy replacements of their post ice age forebears, but many people I speak to are amenable to ecological restoration and understand its role in sustaining human habitability across the boards. Let’s see what happens in 10-20 years. I don’t think rewilding will appear quite so wild by then.

    Meanwhile, am I wrong or is Orion becoming a little bit more radical and active? Rewilding is a riskier subject than what I am used to in this mag… I don’t mind that a bit. These are desperate times and we will need committed, respected leadership that is willing to put a hard-earned reputation on the line in order to light the most sensible path. Don’t know if Hal himself is responsible for this slight change, but believe me it looks very good on you and on your beautifully readable mag. Keep it up. I’ll keep reading and telling all my friends.

  3. Great comments thus far on Josh’s fine little piece. I’d just like to post a few links for folks to be able to go deeper into this issue. First, everyone should know about the Rewilding Insitute (Dave Foreman is a big part of it).

    I have posted a whole webpage that is an annotated list of online articles and news reports related to assisted migration and to rewilding (scroll toward the bottom for the rewilding links):

    For wildness and deep-time eyes,
    Connie Barlow

  4. Quite a bold vision. To restore humanity’s connection to wild megafauna and re-member ourselves as equal players in the Earth’s natural history will require sweeping psychological shifts.

    As Suzanne stated in the previous post, those humans who have learned to honor the shared commons and have honed the location specific knowledge of how to live in their native bioregion will be the ones who reap the benefits of any proposed rewilding efforts.

    For the past eight years I have been immersing teenagers in the Canadian wilderness on 10-15 day canoe trips. Without question these experiences have impacted these young people, and though they may not realize it, they start to see the world around them through an ecopsychological lens. I am a firm believer that without immersion in the wild young people do not know HOW or WHY to care about vanishing species and ecosystems. Viewing these dynamics via DVD or video is often quite ineffective. A firm and healthy connection with the natural world must be directly experienced.

  5. Josh Donlan’s proposal to bring back North America’s charismatic megafauna is a wonderful idea. I couldn’t agree more with the principles of the proposal and greatly admire the energy with which the argument is made. (Kudos also to Dave Foreman and others who advocate rewilding). Yet I would like to offer a mild suggestion if I may. Instead of bringing in elephants, lions, camels and the like, why don’t we restore the megafauna that until relatively recently, vibrantly inhabited North America? We have perfectly adapted, available, and to some extent politically acceptable megafauna right here at home. By this I mean bison, antelope, elk, moose, wolves, grizzlies, cougars, badgers, wolverines, and the like. These are magnificent candidates for the beautiful dream that is rewilding.

    And yet why should we focus solely on megafauna? A healthy ecosystem teeming with biodiversity needs all the various elements. The prairie dog, the ultimate varmint in the eyes of some, has a place and role in the rewilding process, as do the sage grouse, the blue gamma, buffalo grass, little bluestem, the jumping mouse, even the soil. The focus on megafauna is certainly attractive, but likely too restricted. True rewilding requires a revitalization of the whole picture from the apex to the broad base of the food chain and across the entire spectrum of life that inhabited North America in abundance just a few generations ago. Without the base and support elements of the wild ecosystem, megafauna will not thrive. Let’s focus on rewilding the area from Glacier National Park south through Yellowstone-Jackson and east into the Powder, Yellowstone and Missouri River basins to establish a High Plains-Rockies area. For starters.

    Rewilding is a great idea and there would be many beneficiaries including local communities who would likely reap tourist dollars. Rewilding is certainly within reach, especially if we make efforts to bring back the native fauna and flora. They’re still out there, in limited numbers in some sad cases, but rewilding of large swaths of North America is viable. Perhaps it’s ultimately necessary to preserve the wild and allow it to preserve us in return.

  6. Megafauna Restoration? The placement of large animals in a habitat without food, shelter, and a way to make a living is cruel and will not work. The careful development of a food change is needed. The restoration process must start with the small critters, and their food. Making a habitat for the little guys will be a production of food for the Megafauna. Over production of small animals will make ready an environment for the next larger animals.

    A simplistic case in point is the opossums that have migrated north in recent years. This animal is an omnivorous, eating wide variety of food but preferring animal matter from road kill, grasshoppers, other insects, small snakes and baby mice. They like blackberries, wild grapes and other small fruit.

    The main predators of the opossum are birds of prey, foxes, and members of the cat family. The increase of their prey population is an indication of a healthy increasing food chain. The larger animals are prey of their prey.

    This year, there has been an increase in the number of snowy owls. Our area has enough food for them to make a living during this harsh winter. Will they stay?

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