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Wild Again

The restoration of lost carnivores and other key wildlife is vital to the health of our landscapes.

Rocky Wilson and his wife had settled into camp for the evening when they caught sight of a bear emerging from the brush. It was late September 1968, and the Wilsons were hunting in Fisher Basin, one of their favorite places in Washington State’s North Cascades mountains. Avid outdoorspeople, they were no doubt accustomed to seeing black bears in the surrounding alpine meadows, where huckleberries glowed like beacons signaling the winter to come. But this bear was much bigger than the average black bear – almost seven feet long from nose to tail.

photo of a wolf, howlingphoto Max Goldberg, on FlickrUntil recently, wolves and wolverines, like the grizzlies, were but ghosts of a wilder past

Rocky raised his rifle and a shot echoed through the basin. Did he really think he was shooting at a black bear, or were the bear’s three-inch claws enough to register “grizzly” in the waning light? Either way, he couldn’t have known that the pull of his trigger would end a century-long assault on the region’s most formidable predator, whose ancestors had come across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia some 50,000 years before. By the time the Wilsons crawled into their tent that night, grizzlies were gone from one of their last remaining refuges in the Lower 48. Only days later, President Lyndon Johnson transformed that territory into North Cascades National Park with a stroke of his pen. Hunting would never again be allowed in Fisher Basin.

Today, an even more compelling story is unfolding in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE), a vast network of wildlands comprising roughly 24,800 square kilometers in Washington and an additional 10,350 square kilometers in British Columbia.

Standing atop one of the scores of high peaks in North Cascades National Park, one feels lost in a world of jagged spires, hanging valleys, wild rivers, and unbroken forests. These are the secret haunts of animals we hardly ever see but whose existence is the very essence of wildness – Canada lynx, cougars, wolves, wolverines – rare and elusive carnivores that have been eliminated from most of the United States, but that can still find a home in the North Cascades.

Without the protection of the national parks and surrounding public lands, such creatures probably wouldn’t survive here, either. This mostly unspoiled wilderness is within easy reach of the more than 3.5 million people living in the greater Seattle area, who can, theoretically, eat breakfast at their neighborhood diner and arrive at the trailhead before lunch. Fortunately for the wildlife, most don’t. The trails are too darn steep.

Until recently, wolves and wolverines, like the grizzlies, were but ghosts of a wilder past – decimated by hunters, trappers, and predator control programs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But by the 2000s , a complex combination of social and ecological factors had permitted individual animals from Canada to recolonize some of their former habitats. Today, at least 90 wolves and perhaps two-dozen or more wolverines once again wander Washington’s NCE, and both populations continue to expand their range. Even grizzly bears, which persist here in very small numbers, if at all, are now the focus of a long-awaited recovery effort. In 2014, North Cascades National Park and the US Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a three-year process to explore options for restoring grizzlies to the region. With any luck, grizzlies will reclaim their rightful home in the park – and beyond.

Therein lies the challenge. Although America’s national parks include some of the wildest places on Earth, no park in the United States (with the possible exception of Alaska’s biggest parks) is large enough to support the full range of native biological diversity over the long-term. In order to accommodate wide-ranging animals like grizzly bears and wolves, our parks must be connected to other protected areas via wildlife corridors and their boundaries should be expanded wherever possible.

This task becomes all the more urgent given growing pressures on wildlife, including the range shifts many species will experience in response to climate change.

The creation of new parks, and increased connectivity between parks, is essential, but the restoration of carnivores and other key wildlife – like salmon, bison, beavers, elk, and prairie dogs – is also vital to the health of our landscapes. These animals have vanished from some ecosystems due to human activities, and human intervention may be required to bring them back. Such rewilding efforts have been successfully undertaken in several parks to date. Future opportunities abound.

a moose in the wildernessPhoto by Ian ShiveAlthough America’s national parks include some of the wildest places on Earth, no park in
the US (with the possible exception of Alaska’s biggest parks) is large enough to support
the full range of native biological diversity over the long-term.

Imagine: Longleaf Pine National Park, comprised in part of existing National Forests in northern Florida and southern Alabama. This new park, if established, could be home to reintroduced red wolves and cougars. These apex carnivores, largely lost from the region, would help to address overgrazing by deer and also to control destructive feral hog populations. Certain reptiles, such as gopher tortoises, eastern indigo snakes, and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, will also need our help to reestablish self-sustaining populations.

Now envision expanding Great Smoky Mountains National Park by upgrading nearby national forest lands in North Carolina and Tennessee to national park status, thereby protecting them from logging. Reintroduced cougars and red wolves would hold in check the previously reintroduced population of elk and unnaturally abundant white-tailed deer – sparing the many wildflowers, salamanders, and other small creatures that do best in older, structurally complex forests where herbivore and predator populations are well-balanced.

Moving west to the “Spine of the Continent,” imagine reintroducing gray wolves and wolverines to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where elk are decimating vegetation. Rewilding southern Utah’s parks with wolves would work wonders for those ecosystems, too. And in Grand Canyon National Park, let’s restore the Mexican wolf, American badger, and fish like humpback chubs and razorback suckers – both nearly eliminated by the Glen Canyon Dam.

This is but a small sample of rewilding possibilities in our park regions, biased toward charismatic carnivores – which can help lead the way for the restoration of many other threatened or at-risk species.

As past experience shows, rewilding national parks can bring both triumphs and challenges. The most famous rewilding story in the world is the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Their return brought back an iconic symbol of wildness, and helped reestablish riparian areas previously degraded by over-browsing elk. Riparian habitat, in turn, beckoned beavers, butterflies, songbirds, trout, and other members of the biotic community that had disappeared or declined due to predator eradication, in a process scientists describe as “trophic cascades.”

photo of a wolverine, close in profilephoto Josh MoreReintroducing wolverines to Rocky Mountain National Park might help further secure this mammals’ future in the Lower 48.

But wolf recovery in Yellowstone and elsewhere has also encountered bitter opposition, with the most significant resistance emerging from a vocal minority of ranchers and hunters who ideologically oppose this much-demonized predator. There is, however, overwhelming evidence that the occasional economic losses precipitated by wolf predation on livestock are far outweighed by their ecological benefits and boosts to the tourist economy.

One important lesson from Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction is that government agencies must work with local people to nurture support for carnivores well in advance of recovery efforts, and must also establish compensation programs for ranchers who may suffer losses from wolf predation.

It’s heartening to see that the National Park Service is looking ahead and working to realize the full potential of our parks through its “Scaling Up” program, which aims to advance conservation on a vast landscape scale. This initiative is rooted in the understanding that connectivity brings tremendous benefits to park resilience and wildlife migrations alike, and includes a plan to protect continuous wildlife corridors in the country’s five geographic regions – the Northeast, Southwest, West, Southeast, and Midwest.

But given that we are in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, time is of the essence. Although Scaling Up is a major step in the right direction, this initiative will take time to implement nationwide. Some species can’t afford to wait that long for our help. That is why President Obama – who has employed the Antiquities Act several times to create national monuments and bypass the politically challenging process of establishing new national parks – should proclaim more monuments before he leaves office. The president should also officially anoint, for the first time, a wildlife corridor across multiple public lands: Declaring “The Path of the Pronghorn” a national monument, from Grand Teton National Park south to Upper Green River Valley, would ensure the survival of one the world’s last remaining long-distance land animal migrations.

Rewilding is our chance to restore our relationship with our wild neighbors. National parks, both here in the US and all over the world, are the natural place to begin this crucial work.

Years after Rocky Wilson killed a grizzly bear in the North Cascades, a friend asked him how he would have felt if this had been the last grizzly in the entire country. After giving the question much thought, Rocky responded: “Well, my life will never be the same. These are all things of the past,” presumably referring not only to the bears, but also to his historic hunting forays into what had long since become North Cascades National Park. Thanks to that park and the wildness it embodies, grizzlies aren’t yet a thing of the past. Indeed, the possible return of these magnificent animals offers us wild hope for the future.

Paula MacKay has spent 15 years surveying bears, wolverines, wolves, and other wildlife with her husband, Robert, with whom she co-edited Noninvasive Survey Methods for Carnivores.

John Davis is cofounder of the Wildlands Network.


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HOw interesting that the article begins with a hagiographic on the person who shot the last North Cascades Griz, and includes his wife.
I had learned to hunt and track years before this particular event, and experienced a growing distaste for any “sport” claimed for the practice.
Traditional peoples hunted, but also had rituals to help them assuage the guilt of killing our relatives, the others ho share the earth with us.

Even the word :outdoors” is some aberration, as if others were “indoors”. The term thus invites specious comparison, and in reality appears only to define those who do not leave the protected walls of their sleeping abode without firearms.

Most or all of us have killed other living things for necessity or alternative to have another kill for us, but it should be paramount in our minds that we do one or the other. 

To name a human as if there were some worth in blame or social elevation, in this case especially, is to either excoriate or idolize, and the practice is unnecessary and unworthy in a description of the event of extinguishing the last of an ancient and revered species, a necessary predator and carrion-cleaner, spreader of seeds and carrier of memories, teacher and learner who has a right to live and travel the earth freely as great as any or all of our own.

Firearms are a relatively new object on the earth, appearing in the 12- or 1300s in a primitive form in China, developed for war, as it was too inaccurate for hunt, too slow for protection.
By the time the thing had gotten through Europe to this continent, humans had learned to use the monstrous noisemaker to surround large areas with numerous persons, walking and shooting, scaring and killing otward a center. When the group hunters reached the central area, they would fire and relaod, killing every on of the panicked animals who did not know how to flee. This pracitce is repeatedly described in early colonial literture.

Nowadays the massive number of indoorsmen come out wiht their store-bought repeating rifles, complet with scopes, high-velocity (long distance flat trajectory, and thus accurate over extreme distances of far over 1/2 mile)bullets, with silencers, electronic callers, legal baiting with manufactured scents , binoculars, night-scopes, other weapons tech, trail cameras alerting the indoorsmen via satellite or cell (or whatever - it’s done somehow and is so disgusting that I have paid little attention as to which obscene tech is used, now drones, snowmobiles, ATVs, certainly with pickup trucks to carry, wheeled carts, and other conveniences. Euros brought domestic dogs (originally brought for war and terror by the Spanish by 1493, and continuously thereafter) to overcome their inability to track.
All these monstrous aberrations make the pleasure-killing no challenge at all.

Whether griz or wolf or other predator, herbivore, or any moving animal (thus obviating any proper defense by removing some of these war-tech spy items by anyone), nothing that lives is safe.
Poaching is a far larger component of those indoorsmen’s experience than is commonly understood. This can be inferred by the sheer commonality of “duh, I thot it wuz a [something else]”, when in reality ALL animals are far different, griz with their hump, wolves with their size, ear and face, and so on.
Always the first returning wolves of the late 20th and new century were shot, wherever they dispersed; this proves the shoot-first then observe mindset of the indoorsmen.
So just to carry a gun (I have encountered these shoot-firsters numerous times. I am often also warned that I must wear orange or red when I merely wish to walk in Sept through Nov.

Since the kill-first phenomenon is so common, along with military technology rampant, it is past time to limit gun hunting to subsistence only with limited tech.

In any publicatino aimed at reduction of the imbalance of the FAR_overbloomed human species with other species and all ecosystems, such hagiographic idolization of the pleasure-killers by name is inappropriate.

By Makuye on Thu, June 02, 2016 at 10:26 am

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