Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
After the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis spurned our work-
shop proposal, we cut half the invitees, garnered some foundation funds, and asked
folks to pay for their own travel. The Ladder Ranch, a New Mexico property owned
by media mogul-conservationist Ted Turner, agreed to host us, and on a beautiful fall
Friday afternoon we began fashioning a manifesto. Our visionaries were Martin, Bur-
ney, Soulé, and Earth First! founder Dave Foreman. Grassland ecologists Jane and Carl
Bock, mammalogists Joel Berger, Jim Estes, and Gary Roemer, and paleobiologist Felisa
Smith provided levelheaded expertise. Turner's ranch manager Steve Dobrot and his
endangered species biologist Joe Truett were welcome guests, while a fossil mammoth
tooth on the bunkhouse dinner table served as our talisman.
The Ladder Ranch sponsors a Mexican wolf recovery project, so at dusk Steve led
everyone out on a canyon rim and let out a howl; I doubt there was a dry eye among us
as distant lobos responded in kind. Saturday we argued heatedly and good-naturedly, all
day and into the night, over justifications, prospects, and objections. The group agreed
that “deep rewilding” smacked too much of deep ecology, then sifted through exem-
plars of a range of relatedness to extant North American species, conservation status,
difficulty of restoration, and danger to people: horses and donkeys; camels and llamas;
lions, cheetahs, and elephants; and bolson tortoises. By lunch Sunday we'd outlined a
manuscript, and even the Bocks, initially critical of the Martin-Burney proposal, signed
on. Then Steve and Joe gave us a ranch tour, highlighted by a black-tailed prairie dog
town (“Ted likes them,” Joe said, “now he's got sixty thousand”) and a pictograph we
surmised was a bolson tortoise.
Imagine a Serengeti vista on our Great Plains, where millions of bison and dozens of
other large mammal species once roamed, and realize we are not conjuring something
irrelevant to current reality. Until twelve thousand years ago—only three or four times
the age of a bristlecone pine—our megafauna was as rich as Africa's. Besides what little
we still have, there were mastodons and mammoths, horses and camels, armadillos the
size of Volkswagens and ground sloths bigger than refrigerators—which in turn were
eaten by short-faced bears, dire wolves, saber- and scimitar-toothed cats, and larger
versions of modern cheetahs and lions. 34 Those creatures are mostly gone now, van-
ished in a heartbeat of geological time—the last known mammoth lived less than four
thousand years ago, about the time the Hittite king Mursuli sacked Babylon—but most
plants and other animals with which they coexisted survive today. Some, like Osage or-
ange and devil's claw, persist because we and our livestock disperse their seeds, while
others only make sense in a deep-time framework; the pronghorn's phenomenal eye-
sight and speed, for example, are likely adaptations to predation by extinct cheetahs.
Indeed, our entire biota evolved in the context of a megafauna, complete with moun-
tains of megafaunal poop and megafaunal carcasses. Its time without a megafauna has
been minuscule by comparison.
Now, admit that most surviving representatives of what not that long ago was a glob-
al megafauna are in Africa—a rapidly changing landscape on which people are killing
each other over shrinking resources. Almost everywhere, large animals are reduced to
fragmentary ranges and low numbers, genetically ill-equipped for long-term evolution-
ary adjustments. Accordingly, we envisioned Pleistocene rewilding as partially restoring
lost ecosystem function and species diversity in North America, but also providing ad-
ditional populations with which megafauna could adapt to global change. We imagined
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