Pleistocene Park, USA

Should we return proboscids, lions and other megafauna to North America's Great Plains? Nature is running this commentary (subscription required) by Josh Donlan and colleagues that argues just that.

Our vision begins immediately, spans the coming century, and is justified on ecological, evolutionary, economic, aesthetic and ethical grounds. The idea is to actively promote the restoration of large wild vertebrates into North America in preference to the 'pests and weeds' (rats and dandelions) that will otherwise come to dominate the landscape. This 'Pleistocene re-wilding' would be achieved through a series of carefully managed ecosystem manipulations using closely related species as proxies for extinct large vertebrates, and would change the underlying premise of conservation biology from managing extinction to actively restoring natural processes.

I can attest to the dandelions, although we have no rats here at the house.

The idea is to start small with species that are already here, such as the Bolson tortoise and wild horses and asses. Then more exotics, like Bactrian camels, Przewalski's horses, and ultimately all the African and Asian animals with extinct American counterparts, including elephants, lions, and cheetahs. They propose starting on large private ranches, and then expanding outward from there:

Large tracts of private land probably hold the best immediate potential for such studies, with the fossil record and research providing guideposts and safeguards. For example, 77,000 large mammals (most of them Asian and African ungulates, but also cheetahs, camels and kangaroos) roam free on Texas ranches, although their significance for conservation remains largely unevaluated.
The third stage in our vision for Pleistocene re-wilding would entail one or more 'ecological history parks', covering vast areas of economically depressed parts of the Great Plains. As is the case today in Africa, perimeter fencing would limit the movements of otherwise freeliving ungulates, elephants and large carnivores, while surrounding towns would benefit economically from management and tourismrelated jobs. A system of similar reserves across several continents offers the best hope for longterm survival of large mammals.

It's a similar idea to the mammoth tundra restoration project I referred to last month. Of course, if they had already gotten Ted Turner on board, I'm sure there would be no need for publicity. As they say, there are already plenty of semi-wild non-native animals on ranches in this country.

I have my doubts about whether the economics will work out in their favor anytime soon, at least across most of the Great Plains. It is certainly true that the population in that area is both aging and decreasing. Hey, I'm a prime example. But the main economic change has been the use of more land by fewer farmers, equipped with better technology, better farming practices, and in many cases greater diversification. There may be some areas of the plains where land values are low enough to make a go of megafauna tourism, but those areas tend to have low carrying capacity for stock.

And it seems pretty implausible to me that ranchers are going to want elephant herds around because they keep the woody plants down (the commentary alludes to this idea). A couple of ranch hands in Montana are not going to sit idly on their horses while a couple of lions attack an elephant on their land.

Then again, it would be entertaining to see the look on a pronghorn's face the first time a cheetah gave it a good chase. As in, "12,000 years of easy living, and now this?!?"

References:

Donlan J et al. 2005. Re-wilding North America. Nature 436:913-914. Full text (subscription required)