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Greene: Re-Wilding

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If you could visit a Paleolithic game park that mimicked a 15,000-year-old landscape, it would be filled with relatives of the wooly mammoths, North American lions, wood bison and North American camels that were then common here.

It’s happening in Europe. Large tracts of land in the Netherlands and in Siberia are being repopulated with species as close to Paleolithic animals as possible. The idea is to push conservation beyond just protecting what little wilderness is left — to actually turning back the clock to pre-human times.

A sort of re-wilding has already happened in Vermont. Walk through the woods to discover the stone walls that once separated neighbors’ pastures and you have the evidence of land that has reverted to forest. Some now think that we could set aside a tract and take it a step further, with modern relatives of the ancient breeds that died out at the end of the Pleistocene Era.

To ecologists, what’s necessary for the restoration of any healthy ecosystem are “the three C’s” — room for core populations, corridors for animals to migrate between them and… carnivores. I asked Andy Sheere, Consulting Forester, if there were pieces of forest large enough in Vermont to provide the kind of habitat large animals would need. “That’s the million dollar question,” he says. “The rule of thumb is that bears need ten square miles of woods, but then you see them in suburban New Jersey. They adapt - and cohabit - with humans.” Sheere says the other issue is that most forestland in Vermont is privately owned, unlike tracts out west that one day might become “Paleo parks”.

Michael Sheridan, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Middlebury, has another caution: “What we know of large mega fauna today is that they are usually migratory. That means that if we did have a herd of mammoth in a Vermont landscape, they'd probably need to range around the whole region (say, between the St. Lawrence and New York City).”

To be a little more realistic, just reintroducing modern carnivores like wolves and cougars may provide enough challenge. No one wants livestock - or children - mauled.

Maybe the notion of "managed wilderness" is an oxymoron. As a species, we’ve never been good at sharing space or resources. And perhaps my fascination with giant sloths and cave bears is just a desire to return to some sort of fantasized Eden.

There’s also the argument, put forth by science writer Elizabeth Macalaster, that if you could just let a forest be, without reintroducing anything, it would be very interesting to see what turned up.

At the very least, we might rethink our notions of land productivity. We Americans are relentless, unquestioning developers. Many people think that unless humans are meddling with a landscape for fun and profit, it’s being wasted. My husband and I have often been asked, with some exasperation,“What are your woods producing?”

My husband, ever quick with a comeback, replies, “Well, actually, oxygen.”