Rewilding the southern Great Plains [Western USA]

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By Jay Tutchton and Nicole J Rosmarino

Jay is Preserve Manager and Nicole is Executive Director at the Southern Plains Land Trust.

Nearly 25 years ago, the Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT) sprouted, based on a simple idea: let’s buy as much land as we can, just for the wild ones. SPLT’s vision is to bring back the diversity and abundance of wildlife of the American Serengeti by rewilding the shortgrass prairie of the southern Great Plains.

What does “rewilding” mean to us? Let’s start with the word itself. The prefix “re” is simple enough, implying a return to a previous state. The root “wild” is more challenging. America took a stab at it in the Wilderness Act of 1964, which sought to preserve areas “in their natural condition,” … “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” This law was passed to “secure for present and future generations the benefits of wilderness.”

However, even in the 1960s, the era of atmospheric nuclear testing, no spot on Earth was entirely untrammeled by humanity. In today’s age of human-caused global warming, where our toxins and plastic detritus have found their way to every corner of the Earth, the idea of a pristine “wild” is perhaps far-fetched. Indeed, in the larger sense, ever since our ancestors climbed down out of the trees on an African savannah, humanity has modified every community of life we have encountered.

Yet, the underlying notion that we should strive to preserve nature and let natural processes endure, without a human hand on the tiller, remains compelling. We, and every other creature on Earth, need the wild. It literally made all of us. The concept of rewilding exists because now, half a century along our journey to preserve the wild, we have become painfully aware that saving only what remains “untrammeled” will not do the trick. We need to return some of what we have taken.

For us at SPLT the process begins with buying the land. We don’t try to make a living off the land; rather we let the land live. The area where we work was once the Dust Bowl, the place where human domination of the land broke its community of life, including people. When forced, many of the region’s people retreated. It is the perfect setting for rewilding, as what was tried in the past – ignoring nature’s bounds – objectively failed.

Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve (photo © Jennifer Gooden)

On the prairie, it all starts with the native grasses. We let them grow. We do not plow. That enables the buffalograss and blue grama to reach their long roots down and hold the prairie in place as well as store carbon. Next, we remove as many fences as possible. This is a land of ebb and flow, where wildlife migrate as conditions dictate. It is a landscape of curved lines, swales, meandering streams, and rounded rocky mesas. This land never knew a straight line until humans put one on it. Rectangular boxes of barbed wire challenge the creatures that evolved to roam it; just ask a pronghorn running 45 miles per hour into a fence made of steel.

Fence removal work by SPLT staff (photo © Sean Boggs for Environmental Defense Fund)

We restore the riparian areas. Water, or the lack of it, controls this land. We let it flow. We let it nourish. We try, with simple structures made of native rocks, to heal a century of erosion. We plant trees, believing that someday, the beaver will return and build dams for their community of life, keeping the precious water on the landscape a little longer.

As to the non-human residents of this land, we let them live in peace. We do not hunt the pronghorn, deer, or elk. We welcome their natural predators to do that. Neither predators nor prey are our competitors. They can work out the fractions between themselves on their own, without our meddling. We do not manage “game” species, and we let the little things alone. We do not pick and choose which members of the community we will tolerate.

Rewilding to SPLT means true refuge for nature. That’s crucial for prairie dogs, a keystone species that humanity tried mightily to eliminate. Prairie dogs are welcome to build their towns where they wish, and the golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, swift fox, coyotes, badgers, burrowing owls, mountain plovers, and dozens of other creatures who benefit from prairie dogs thank us for our tolerance.

We also bring back the missing pieces of the community where we can. We have reintroduced bison, another keystone species, to our preserves. We watch with joy as they return the land to their management: creating wallows where wildflowers will spring up next year and, as they rub off their winter coats, battering juniper trees that invaded the grasslands in their absence.

Bison at Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve (photo © Sean Boggs for Environmental Defense Fund)

Finally, and this is the part that the drafters of the Wilderness Act foresaw, as caretakers of SPLT’s preserves we have been rewilding ourselves. When we moved to preserve headquarters, we began to watch sunrises and sunsets instead of television. We noticed stars rise and fall with the seasons and noted the phases of the moon. The return of the migratory birds, and not the calendar, tells us when winter is breaking. We absorbed all the things that civilization had obscured, and it brought us happiness. When you live in the city you learn to ignore sounds; they are intrusions, annoyances, largely devoid of any meaning.

On the prairie, however, every sound has meaning. A meadowlark sings from a yucca stalk at daybreak, indicating this is his territory, and you watch to see if his song is successful in attracting a mate. A mockingbird imitates him and a dozen other species and plays the same game. A quail flushes or a prairie dog barks, warning of an intruder. Coyotes sing at dusk, and you hear their neighboring pack answer, each indicating its strength and territory.

Sunset over Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve (photo © Michael Menefee)

These rhythms rub off, and you return to what all humans once knew before we separated ourselves from nature. You are better off for it. That is the true secret of rewilding. It is returning nature to itself, and returning us to our connection with it.

Location of Heartland Ranch, the largest SPLT reserve