This March 21, 2019, aerial file photo provided by the National Park Service shows the Junction Butte wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. Park officials say 23 wolves have been killed by hunters and trappers after roaming out of the park I recent months (photo by National Park Service Via AP, File).

Opinion: Rewilding the West with wolves and beavers will curb climate change

by Bethany Cotton, Conservation Director for Cascadia Wildlands
Originally published in The Register-Guard, August 28, 2022

As the Western U.S. again endures record-breaking summer heat and enters our third decade of drought, it’s time for us to adopt bold, regionwide solutions that will support climate-resilient communities, safeguard drinking water sources, reduce wildfire risk, protect remaining mature and old-growth forests and enhance wildlife habitat.  

A recent BioScience publication by a large group of renowned scientists — several of whom call Oregon’s public universities home — lays out an ambitious blueprint for revitalizing western ecosystems. As the study explains, “rewilding aims to reestablish vital ecological processes … Our rewilding call is grounded in ecological science and is necessary regardless of changing political winds.”  

The scientists call for the establishment of a network of land reserves of at least 5,000 square kilometers (approximately the size of Grand Canyon National Park) on federally managed public lands. The study’s proposal outlines three key restoration steps within the reserve network: permanent retirement of public lands grazing permits, restoring beavers, and protecting, recovering or restoring wolves. 

Public lands grazing results in habitat degradation, particularly in streamside (riparian) habitats, introduces invasive species like cheat grass — which can, in turn, increase wildfire risk and severity — and cause conflicts with native wildlife. Taxpayers have for decades subsidized public lands grazing, in effect paying for public land to be degraded. Indeed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists grazing as a threat to the recovery of nearly half of the 92 imperiled species considered by the rewilding plan.  

While wolves have returned to portions of the species’ historic range, only 14% of that range in the 11 Western states is currently occupied. The new land reserve network would correspond with potential core wolf habitat and enhance the likelihood of wolves returning to historic, yet still unoccupied, areas of public lands.  

Like wolves, beaver populations were once robust across the West, but were decimated by Euro-American pelt trapping leading to an estimated 90% to 98% population decline. Also like wolves, beavers are a key ecosystem engineer, providing ecosystem services including enrichment of fish habitat, increasing water retention, improving water quality, augmenting carbon sequestration, providing wet fire breaks and in general enhancing streamside habitat to the benefit of many species through felling trees and building dams. While streamside areas are relatively rare, they provide habitat for 72% of wildlife species, making riparian restoration incredibly effective for biodiversity conservation. Allowing beavers to naturally conduct this restoration work is both practically and financially effective. 

The proposal methodically lays out the order in which these restoration initiatives should take place and clearly outlines the ecological justification for each aspect of the plan. It would also result in enhanced protections for the forest carbon stored within the proposed reserves, something already identified by scientists as essential for our region to preserve biodiversity and cope with the climate change impacts already being experienced. Along with ecological considerations, the rewilding plan specifically calls for true partnership with Indigenous peoples and lays out an economic and socially just plan to permanently retire 29% of public lands grazing allotments in the 11 Western states.  

The study makes clear: often the simplest, impactful way to undo harms humans have wrought on the natural world is to let native species perform their natural ecosystem services.  

Born, raised and educated in Oregon, Bethany Cotton is an environmental attorney and the Conservation Director for Cascadia Wildlands, She’s a regular contributor to The Register-Guard.