By editorial board • 

OSU study lays out vision for 'rewilding' of American West

“Rewilding the American West,” a public lands management study led by faculty of Oregon State University’s Department of Forestry, is being widely heralded by environmental and conservation groups.

They are urging its adoption as a blueprint for combating the ravages of climate change in the nation’s 11-state western region, consisting of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming,  California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

OSU is a land grant school known for highly regarded forestry and agriculture programs enjoying broad industry support. So a rigorous study featuring two of its forestry professors as lead authors, and four more as contributing authors, is not easily dismissed.

Published earlier this week in the academic journal BioScience, the study identifies two primary targets for habitat expansion — the gray wolf and beaver, each currently relegated to a tiny fraction of its historic range.

The study says a host of other plant and animal species would also benefit from creation of what it’s dubbing the Western Rewilding Network, including 92 that are threatened and endangered. 

However, the leading beneficiary would ultimately be the one largely responsible for inflicting all the environmental carnage in the first place — the planet’s human population.

“It’s an ambitious idea, but the American West is going through an unprecedented period of converging crises, including extended drought and water scarcity, extreme heat waves, massive fires and loss of biodiversity,” said Professor William Ripple, one of the lead authors.

Wolves served to control native ungulates, thus facilitating regeneration of declining species like the aspen, which support a diverse array of beneficial plant and animal communities. By felling trees and building dams, beavers restore fish habitat, foster better water and sediment retention, enhance carbon sequestration, and improve water flow and quality. 

The study says riparian areas would reap the greatest benefit. And though they only account for 2% of western wildland, they provide habitat for up to 70% of wildlife species.

The authors have identified 11 large contiguous tracts that could be woven into a network encompassing 500,000 square kilometers. It would consist primarily of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management holdings.

To facilitate the plan, they are recommending a 29% reduction in western-states cattle grazing. They say public lands grazing accounts for a mere 2% of American beef production nationally, but serves to degrade crucial riparian habitat across 229 million acres  disproportionately concentrated in the West.

According to the study, grazing imperils 48% of threatened and endangered species, compared to 22% for mining, 18% for logging and 11% for oil and gas drilling. And the cost-benefit ratio is clearly lowest for grazing, which is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer.

Sarah McMillan of WildEarth Guardians reflected the perspective of the environmental and conservation community when she said:

“The ecological and economic benefits of the rewilding plan presented in this paper would be significant, and would accumulate over time as riparian areas, clean water and biodiversity are restored, and climate change is mitigated through increased carbon storage.”

In the face of growing climate change peril, we can’t afford to stand idly by, let alone engage in outright denial.

We need to face up to the challenge forthrightly, and follow the science whenever possible. No potentially workable idea should be rejected out of hand.


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