Rewilding the West with wolves and beavers will curb climate change
As the western United States experiences record summer heat again and enters its third decade of drought, it’s time for us to embrace bold regional solutions that will support climate-resilient communities, protect sources of drinking water, reduce the risk of forest fires, protect old-growth forests and improve wildlife habitat.
A recent publication of BioScience by a large group of renowned scientists – many of whom call Oregon’s public universities home – lays out an ambitious plan to revitalize western ecosystems. As the study explains, “Rewilding aims to restore vital ecological processes…Our call for rewilding is grounded in ecological science and is necessary regardless of shifting political winds.”
The scientists call for the creation of a network of land reserves of at least 5,000 square kilometers (about the size of Grand Canyon National Park) on public lands managed by the federal government. The study proposal outlines three key stages of restoration within the reserve system: the permanent withdrawal of grazing permits on public lands, the restoration of beavers, and the protection, recovery or restoration of wolves.
Grazing on public land leads to habitat degradation, especially in riparian (river) habitats, introduces invasive species like cheat grass – which can, in turn, increase the risk and severity of fires forest – and cause conflict with native wildlife. For decades taxpayers have subsidized the grazing of public lands, in effect paying for the degradation of public lands. Indeed, the US Fish and Wildlife Service lists grazing as a threat to the recovery of nearly half of the 92 species at risk considered by the rewilding plan.
While wolves have returned to parts of the species’ historic range, only 14% of that range in the 11 western states is currently occupied. The new network of land reserves would correspond to potential prime wolf habitat and increase the likelihood of wolves returning to historic, but still unoccupied areas of public land.
Like wolves, beaver populations were once robust throughout the West, but were decimated by the trapping of Euro-American pelts, resulting in an estimated population decline of 90% to 98%. Like wolves, beavers are a key ecosystem engineer, providing ecosystem services including enriching fish habitat, increasing water retention, improving water quality, increasing carbon sequestration, providing wet firebreaks, and generally improving riparian habitat for the benefit of many species through logging. trees and build dams. Although riparian areas are relatively rare, they provide habitat for 72% of wildlife species, making riparian restoration incredibly effective for biodiversity conservation. Allowing beavers to do this restoration work naturally is both practical and financially efficient.
The proposal methodically establishes the order in which these restoration initiatives should take place and clearly outlines the ecological rationale for each aspect of the plan. This would also result in better protection of forest carbon stored in the proposed reserves, something already identified by scientists as essential for our region to preserve biodiversity and coping with the impacts of climate change already experienced. In addition to ecological considerations, the rewilding plan specifically calls for a true partnership with Indigenous peoples and lays out an economically and socially just plan to permanently remove 29% of public grazing lands in the 11 western states.
The study is clear: often the easiest and most effective way to undo the damage humans have done to the natural world is to let native species provide their natural ecosystem services.
Bethany Cotton is an environmental lawyer and director of conservation for Cascadia Wildlands. She is a monthly contributor to The Register-Guard.