“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” - Job 12:7-10
I’ve written about rewilding a few times. In my first piece I discussed how in order to rewild the Earth, man needs to be rewilded first. The second piece laid out a vision for rewilding my hometown of Houston, Texas by breaking the concrete chains strangling our signature bayous. I also wrote for SeaAhead about the necessity of rewilding the seas in the 2020s. This post is an attempt to frame answers to the question of “how to rewild at scale”.
I think of rewilding as an approach to wildlife conservation that entails humanity taking a step back and letting Nature, dynamic and antifragile, regenerate the Biosphere herself. It entails the reintroduction of keystone species to depleted environments in order to initiate top-down trophic cascades. Examples of rewilding include bringing bison back to the Great Plains to regenerate native shortgrass prairie and reintroducing beavers to the waterways of the the American West to mitigate the impact of wildfires.
Why do this at all? Why should we rewild the planet? One answer is that a rewilded natural world can help us to fight climate change. Diverse ecosystems are more biologically productive than simple ones. This means more that there are more plants around to turn atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic carbon, a solid that can be stored on long timescales in soil. Sergey and Nikita Zimov’s Pleistocene Park is premised on the idea that releasing large herbivores, like wild horses, moose, reindeer, and resurrected mammoths, into Russian Siberia would bring back the mammoth steppe, an extinct, highly productive grassland ecosystem, to what is now moss-dominated, unproductive taiga. In this setting, large ungulates would compact snowfall with their heavy footfalls, which would help to insulate the ground. This process would keep the soil from warming up quickly, and limit the onset of a thawing permafrost methane bomb, an event which would wreak climactic havoc on the whole planet.
Creatures like bison, beavers, and oysters are ecosystem engineers, meaning that they create niches for other forms of life to inhabit. The grazing patterns and wallowing activities of bison are dynamic stressors on the landscapes they inhabit, and stimulate the rapid growth of diverse plant communities while also creating microhabitats for birds, bugs, and other critters to thrive in. Beaver dams open up ways of life for plants and animals that would be impossible without their slowing of waterways and felling of trees. Oysters filter and clean water at ridiculously fast rates, form reefs in which fish, crustaceans, and mollusks can play, while also serving as natural storm barriers and sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide at the same time.
Perhaps the most important reason to rewild the planet is spiritual. Humanity came of age in a world filled with charismatic megafauna — mammoths, bison, saber tooth cats — and we are wired to live in a thrilling tension with these magnificent creatures. Today, most people live in cities where the largest animals we see on a day to day basis are our fellow human beings. Living in this sanitized environment is spiritually degrading. Man was put on this planet to steward life. How can we cultivate a natural world that we have no opportunity to see? Rewilding Earth puts forth a positive vision of a mutually beneficial symbiosis between man and nature, where we help usher into being a flourishing Biosphere for us to commune with.
In order for this potent vision to come into being, ecology must be integrated into the economy. Our present world runs on money, so for rewilding to work at the scale it must be commercially viable. It is distasteful to put a price on nature. Nonetheless, compromises must be made for action to take place. We cannot rely on philanthropic efforts alone to push rewilding forward. In the end, someone has to make a buck if we are to resurrect giant bucks.
Eco-tourism is a well-established tool for incentivizing the growth of wild nature. Wildlife hunting safaris in Africa provide private landowners with a monetary reason to keep large megafauna around, and even expand their populations. The European Safari Company leads expeditions to various rewilded lands around Europe that help pay for the expansion of these regions. Exotic wildlife ranches are big business here in Texas, where private landowners import various African species for both hunting and eco-tourism purposes. Given that a major reason to rewild the planet is for humans to come into contact with wild creatures, this approach seems extremely appropriate.
Hunting permits would likely be a controversial addition to the ways for rewilded lands to make money, but they make eminent sense. Given the widespread distaste for reintroducing large predators onto marginal lands, large herbivores have been the first kind of animals targeted in rewilding initiatives. Without introducing predators to cut down their numbers, some force will have to help cull these herds. Why not earn some cash by letting hunters go after select individuals nearing the end of their life anyways? Beyond hunting, products like bison steaks, pelts, buffalo chip fire starter, and perhaps marketable vegetation encouraged by the existence of large megafauna could be sold to make money as well.
I think there is a lot of potential for the sale of carbon sequestration credits in voluntary carbon markets to advance rewilding efforts. I’m currently leading research for BCarbon, a non-profit startup that certifies empirically measured increases in soil carbon stocks for carbon credit trading, that hopes to leverage the soil carbon sequestration potential of the native shortgrass prairie of the North American Great Plains to remove between 1 and 2 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year. Recent research indicates that grasslands grazed by American bison are more effective at storing carbon in the ground than those grazed by cattle. As climate change considerations increasingly shapes how capital flows into industry, could rising prices for natural carbon sequestration credits help the cause of rewilding?
Beyond solely relying on carbon credits, in recent months we have been pushed in the direction of adding other ecosystem services to our BCarbon credit offerings. These include things like incorporating the positive benefits that regenerative agriculture practices have on water quality and quantity, soil health, and crucially, biodiversity. The corporate world is increasingly looking like it will begin to set biodiversity targets in addition their recent enthusiasm for making grandiose climate goals. Rewilding projects are the most effective way to increase biodiversity rapidly and effectively, plus they are great PR. Incorporating biodiversity into voluntary ecosystem service credit markets would make this a reality. I am actively working on developing the market infrastructure to support this opportunity.
These are just the beginning of answers to the question of how to rewild at scale. Thankfully my work aligns with this vision, and I will have a lot of time to think about implementing some of these ideas. God willing, I will succeed in bringing forth a wilder future.