August 26, 2005

Profs: Increase Biodiversity

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Think wild lions, cheetah, camels and elephants can only survive in Africa? Not true, said Cornell researchers, who suggested these animals could roam North America as part of a wildlife conservation project. The plan, published last Thursday in the latest issue of Nature, has stirred up a media frenzy.

Prof. Harry Greene, ecology and evolutionary biology, one of the paper’s co-authors, said some of his critics were quick to object to his proposal because they hadn’t actually read it.

“A lot of people think the idea is wacky,” Greene said. “Many are irrationally suspicious of academics, who they think live in an ivory tower. These people think we’re going to back a truck up and unleash lions on the streets of Topeka to eat their kids … they don’t realize all science is driven in stages.”

The proposal supports the establishment of restoration parks with large domesticated mammals that are relatives of extinct vertebrates that lived in the area 13,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene era. Known as “Pleistocene re-wilding,” the plan would also help revive the struggling rural Great Plains and Southwest economies.

The need for maintaining biodiversity is crucial in the future, particularly for preserving large mammals, said one of the paper’s co-authors, Josh Donlan grad.

“It’s clear in the coming decades we’re going to decide what kind of world we want to live in and we’ll make that decision by default or by design,” he said. “This proposal is part of an alternative and optimistic vision to shift [conservation] away from just mitigating extinction to actively restoring ecological processes.”

While most North American conservationists typically use Columbus’ arrival in 1492 as the restoration benchmark, Donlan and others hope to restore nature to its state before the arrival of the first Native Americans from Eurasia 13,000 years ago. During this era, the North American wildlife was much more diverse until the extinction of large mammals created gaps in the ecosystem. The proposal suggests these gaps can be filled by restoring animals that are descendants of large Pleistocene-era mammals. These animals would be taken out of captivity in the United States — not Africa — Donlan emphasized.

“We’re not proposing to steal Africa’s wildlife and put it in America,” he said. “This is the imperialistic edge the press has used [to criticize us].”

According to the proposal, formerly captive animals would be released into the wilderness only in carefully controlled situations. Greene points to the recent restoration of wolves in Yellowstone National Park as a successful example of releasing domesticated animals into the wilderness.

Although aware that many may view his project as “playing God” with animals, Greene does not see this as a problem.

“We need to face the facts that we’re in charge of managing Earth,” he said. “This may not sound good idealistically, but we need to confront issues [of conservation] candidly and apply control.”

Gary Roemer, assistant professor in the department of fishery and wildlife sciences at New Mexico State University, who also co-authored the proposal, believes the proposal has attracted criticism because it goes against what most people believe is “natural.”

“[Viewing conservation in this way] goes against people’s basic principles…” he wrote in an email. “Elephants and lions in North America? Elephants and lions belong in Africa. But people’s views are so narrow in scope … we are constricted by our life span. We think in terms of years or tens of years … we do not often realize that history is much older than we are.”

Donlan urges his critics to assess the proposal’s obstacles and risks and discuss each on a case by case basis before formulating their opinions.

“[The proposal] is especially controversial because it hits the core of society,” he said. [The public] has a fascination with large mammals, if you look at the names of the cars we drive and the sports teams.”

The team’s conservation proposal will be tested in the next few years by releasing the endangered Bolson tortoise from Mexico at a private ranch in New Mexico.

Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writer