Friday, December 21, 2012

The Eagles Knew Better





“Many so-called specialists thought this would be impossible,” he said. “The eagles had a different opinion.”

Red deer (elk) and tarpan (horses) in a new wilderness, sort of.
Franz Vera is speaking of the Oostvaarderplassen – an ecosystem reconstruction on 15,000 acres in the Netherlands, 30 minutes from Amsterdam. Vera and colleagues are building a Paleolithic landscape that already includes great herds of mega-fauna including extinct aurochs (giant cattle) and tarpan (original horses), or at least their ghosts, bred back to something like wildness from the most ancient strains that survive.

The white-tailed eagle narrowly escaped extinction. They were said to need mature, tall trees to nest and hadn’t bred in the Netherlands since the Middle Ages. A pair showed up at Oostvaarderplassen and built a nest “nearly the size of an armchair. It seemed ready to topple the scrawny tree it was perched in,” according to an engaging December 24th New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Experts said they wouldn't show
It feels peculiar for a North American restoration ecologist to read about the Oostvaarderplassen – even though the whole project has its roots here. The “re-wilding” concept was developed by American conservation biologists Michael Soule and Reed Noss, who in turn drew some inspiration from the prairie restoration movement of the Midwest. But what’s so peculiar is the lack of any discussion about plants, in either Kolbert’s article or any of the top Oostvaarderplassen choices on Google.

Many North American ecosystem restorations have been rightly criticized for not paying enough attention to animals. The Oostvaarderplassen work seems all animal. Of course, the Europeans have no counterpart to “natural area” in the American sense. Their quality plant communities were grazed out of existence millennia ago. In some ways the Oostvaarderplassen is a big farm. By winter there’s no grass left, and something like 40% of the charismatic grazers either starve or have to be shot. 
Restoring the aurochs to wild Europe is much like restoring the mammoth to the ancient wilds of North America. 
Oostvaarderplassen has about 1,000 tarpan (horses), 300 aurochs-like cattle, and about 3,000 red deer (elk). They've been joined by huge numbers of geese, egrets, and other birds. Notice the possibly nervous heron, below left. 

No one speaks of restoring the wolf, lion or bear – all wiped out in most of Europe long ago. Of course Oostvaarderplassen, about the size of the Palos forest preserves, is too small for big carnivores.

Enter “Rewilding Europe” – launched three years ago by “two Dutchmen, a Swede, and a Scot.” They have raised six million Euros so far to pursue five rewilding areas - each fifteen times bigger than Oostvaarderplassen. Linked, they’d be enough for big predators. Let us wish them well on this noble quest.  

2 comments:

Daniel Suarez said...

I too have read the article. Definitely worth the time. I agree that animals are often left out of Chicago region restoration initiatives. But with our postage-stamp sized natural areas, it is difficult to provide most hunters with the space that they need to thrive. Unfortunately, our areas badly need them. Look no further than white-tailed deer for an illustration of what damage can occur to an ecosystem when the food-chain is fractured.

I think that the tale of the white-tailed eagle at Oostvaarderplassen is one that can give us hope. After centuries, they came back to nest. While the wolves, bears, and buffalo are long gone, perhaps we can look forward to the day that we can begin to create larger, more connected natural areas for these creatures to return. Although it sounds like a steep hill to climb, the Oostvaarderplassen is an example that you can never say never. And if it can happen anywhere, it can happen in the Chicago region, where we already have such a strong network of volunteers and professionals who have the experience in thinking big and getting things done.

Stephen Packard said...

Daniel, thanks for the wise words. Your generation will have opportunities that the first-generation restoration folks didn't have. At first they worked on one to five acres. Later on hundreds. Nachusa Grassland (more than 3,000 acres) may soon release bison for the first time in an eastern tallgrass prairie in a century and a half. Each time we learn a new component, it becomes easier to move to the next level.