Rewilding could benefit the ecosystem of the American West, according to a new study


According to researchers from Oregon State University (OSU). In the article “Rewilding the American West” published in Bioscienceco-author William Ripple and 19 other authors suggest using portions of federal lands — like national parks and national forests — in 11 states to establish potential rewilding habitat for gray wolves and beavers.

There has been a steep decline in wolf and beaver populations in the western United States due to hunting. Beavers were also once abundant in the West, however, due to human activity. to trap for their furbeaver populations have dropped by 90%, according to a Press release.

Rewilding area

Ripple and the other authors found 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles) of contiguous federal land that could support wolf habitat. The total area in the 11 states would be around 500,000 square kilometers (193,051 sq mi). States include Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

“It’s an ambitious idea, but the American West is going through an unprecedented period of converging crises, including prolonged drought and water scarcity, extreme heat waves, massive fires and loss of biodiversity,” says William Ripple, study co-author and professor. of Ecology at OSU College of Forestry, in a news release.

According to the National Park Service (NPS), wolves were hunted to near extinction in the mid-1900s in the lower 48 states, including Yellowstone National Park. However, conservation efforts began in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1995 and 1996, experts released 31 gray wolves into yellowstone national park.

“Yet the current range of the gray wolf in these 11 states is only about 14% of its historic range,” co-lead author Christopher Wolf says in a press release. “They probably once numbered in the tens of thousands, but today there are only maybe 3,500 wolves in the whole West.”

Benefits of reintroduction

A reduced beaver population means that some ecosystem services are no longer provided, the authors say in a press release. When beavers build dams, they help enrich the ecosystem for fish, retain water and sediment, and ensure water continues to flow, even during a drought. They help improve water quality and overall make the ecosystem more habitable for plants and animals, according to a press release.

“Restoration of beavers is a cost-effective way to repair riparian domains,” co-author Robert Beschta said in a press release. “Riparian areas occupy less than 2% of land in the West, but provide habitat for up to 70% of wildlife species.”

(Credit: Frank Fichtmueller/Shutterstock)

Wolves also play a role in maintaining the ecosystem. According yellowstone national park, the reintroduction of wolves has helped curb the elk population, allowing willows and aspens to regrow. They also keep coyotes away, which could benefit raptors and other small predators, such as foxes. The study authors say in a press release that wolves may help facilitate the regrowth of certain vegetation, which supports various plant and animal communities that are in decline in the West.

Recommended steps

The document lists 92 endangered or threatened plant and animal species that have at least a 10% range within the suggested “Western Rewilding Network”. The researchers compared these species to the threat of human activity.

The researchers concluded that livestock grazing poses the biggest threat because it can lead to the degradation of wetlands, make it harder for trees like willows to grow, and impact the frequency of wildfires. About 2% of grazing in the United States comes from federal grazing permits, the press release said.

“We suggest removal of grazing on approximately 285,000 square kilometers (110,039 sq mi) federal allotments within the rewilding network, which represents 29% of the total 985,000 square kilometers (380,310 sq mi) of federal lands in the 11 western states that are annually grazed,” Beschta said in a press release. “That means we need an economically and socially just federal compensation program for those who give up their grazing permits. Reseeding will be most effective when the participation concerns of all stakeholders are taken into account, including Indigenous peoples and their governments.


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