Proposals made by Josh Donlan and colleagues to “re-wild” the Great Plains (“Re-wilding North America” Nature 436, 913–914; 2005) assume that if the land is void of people, it is necessarily open to exotic megafauna. As a historian of the twentieth-century American West, I disagree, and I believe the re-wilding plan would be harmful to current environmental efforts in the area.
The human population may be sparse, but people on the plains use large areas of land to drive the economies of the towns that dot the landscape. In the late 1980s, a group of well-meaning people tried to gather support for the Big Open project. This was part of a larger proposal, called the Buffalo Commons, to establish a huge preserve for bison covering 139,000 square miles in ten states from Texas to Montana. Local people overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. Subsequent anti-environmentalist and anti-government feeling damaged efforts that were being made towards environmental sustainability.
But local alliances can be productive, and the stubborn search for middle ground has led to some recent victories for biodiversity in the region. Bison have been reintroduced to Native American reservation lands, land has been restored by Nature Conservancy, plans are in progress to pay ranchers to reduce the number of cattle grazing, and coal bed methane pollution has been opposed by the Northern Plains Resource Council. Some ranchers have taken up environmentally friendlier practices, such as adjusting cattle grazing on the Plains, by use of fencing, to mimic the habits of bison: intensive grazing for a shorter period of time.
Politicians, ranchers and academics have started talking to each other constructively. Can we honestly now ask the region to ingest lions and cheetahs?