Sunday, June 15, 2014

1444. Europe: From Untended Farmland, Reserve Tries to Recreate Wilderness From Long Ago

By Suzanne Daley, The New York Times, June 13, 2014
Recreating wilderness in Spain, Photo: Samuel Aranda.
LA ALAMEDILLA, Spain — The forces of nature were getting more than a little prodding recently on the grassy 1,200-acre reserve outside this village near Spain’s border with Portugal.
Two gamekeepers were building a nest the size of a patio table to help endangered black storks attract mates. Others were feeding chicken carcasses to vultures. Nearby, ancient breeds of horses and cattle, transplanted to these parts, were quietly grazing.
Five years ago, this reserve was a cattle farm. Its ponds were clogged with animal waste. Its oak trees were squat from years of pruning. But signs of change are easy to notice, from the waist-high bushes sprouting everywhere to the abundant frogs in the pond, which are so loud at times that conversation is virtually impossible.
“You can see,” said Diego Benito, who manages the reserve, “there is so much more life here now.”
The reserve, the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve, is at the forefront of an ambitious new conservation movement that is fast gaining ground in Europe, where vast stretches of farmland are falling into disuse. The goal is to take advantage of some of that emptiness to recreate the kind of wilderness that once existed on this continent, but disappeared centuries ago.
Past conservation efforts have tended to focus on stopping the forces degrading an environment or on helping a single species. But the “rewilding” movement preaches far more aggressive intervention. Some advocates want to restore ecosystems that have not existed in 10,000 years, and talk of returning lions, rhinoceroses and breeds of elephants to Europe.
At the Campanarios, gamekeepers are working with the privately owned Dutch Taurus Foundation and several universities to breed and then reintroduce a close approximation of the auroch, a giant species of cattle that went extinct in the 1600s. The idea is to find bovine breeds with primitive characteristics and use cross- and selective breeding to develop an animal that lives and grazes much like the aurochs did.
But so far most of the dozens of projects underway on the Continent are centered on the less radical notion of reintroducing large grazing animals that once roamed unfettered in much of Europe — wild horses, European bison, red deer, ibex — and letting bears, wolves and lynx keep them in check.
Rewilders argue that without such an injection of wildlife, particularly of large herbivores, the untended farmland will become overgrown with thick vegetation that will end up killing off what biodiversity still exists today.
“We need to bring in a few of the parts that are missing because they just aren’t there anymore, and that missing part is often the large herbivores,” said Staffan Widstrand, a nature photographer and author who is also the communications director for Rewilding Europe, a foundation established five years ago that wants to see 2.4 million acres of land in the process of rewilding by 2020.
The foundation grew out of a conference on wilderness held in Prague. It has the support of a variety of conservation groups, including WWF Netherlands, ARK Nature, Wild Wonders of Europe and Conservation Capital, and is helping to fund a half-dozen projects so far, possibly with more to come.
Among its projects are reintroducing European bison in an area of the Romanian Carpathian Mountains, where farms are being abandoned, and ibex along a stretch of the Adriatic coast of Croatia where there are two national parks. The hope, said Mr. Widstrand, is that the wilderness areas will eventually be able to pay for themselves by attracting tourists much in the way Africa’s Serengeti does.

But the foundation’s work is not the only such effort and there is no single formula that constitutes rewilding, a term that most experts say emerged in the United States about a decade ago. Experts say that Europeans have so far been the most active. Some 30 groups belong to the Rewilding Europe Network, which was started by the foundation as a way for interested parties to exchange information.
The projects vary enormously. Some, like the Campanarios, have a multispecies approach, while others focus only on restoring large grazers. Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, 79, a member of the network, has introduced a small herd of European bison to a 32,000-acre expanse of family property in Bad Berleburg, Germany, a hilly, densely forested region near Cologne.
The property, which has been in the prince’s family for 800 years, is still used for logging, and the public has access to its vast network of trails. The prince’s son, Prince Gustav, said the family wanted to show that bison, most of which came from zoo herds, could survive in the forest on their own, even with people and machines present.
Rewilders say that once they have reset the ecological systems, they intend to largely stand back and watch. What happens then is an open question and part of the adventure.
“This movement is about seeing where that takes us,” said George Monbiot, a British journalist and ecologist whose book, “Feral,” published in 2013, advocated rewilding.
“Unpredictable and not controlled and not managed is exactly what we are looking for,” he said. “It’s precisely the surprise that the ecosystem can throw that we want.”
Critics worry about just that, calling the movement more sentiment than science. They say that reintroducing animals in ecosystems that have changed and adapted could have unpredictable consequences. And they believe that such efforts should be more rigorously monitored.
“We don’t see any scientific papers coming out of any of these projects,” said Dustin Rubenstein, an ecologist at Columbia University. “No doubt there may be benefits. But using proxies is a risk. If you put back wolves, fine. But it’s very different than putting elephants in Kansas because there used to be mastodons there.”
Rewilders say they are too impatient to wait for controlled experiments to be set up. Science is not their goal, they say, though scientists are welcome to come and study.
“Our task is to make Europe a wilder place,” said Mr. Widstrand. “Our task is not numbers and spreadsheets and Ph.D’s.”
Just letting nature take its course would take too long, he added, expressing annoyance with the rules that have slowed the introduction of new animals in many places. “You can do a lot of things against nature,” he said, “but when you want to put it back, the red tape is awful.”
Nonetheless some of the projects, like Prince Gustav’s, have faced angry neighbors. Some nearby landowners are furious about the bison, complaining that they have eaten the bark off their trees and caused other damage to their property.
Here in La Alamedilla, many of the villagers welcomed the preserve and hoped it would bring tourists to an area that has emptied in recent years, with young people moving to the cities to find jobs. In 1965, 800 people lived in this village. There were four bakeries and five bars. Today, the population is 165, and most are elderly. Two bars remain. There are only three children living here.
Farming is declining. Of the five farmers still here, one retired recently, said the mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez.
The Campanarios reserve has four rooms for tourists and is building more. But villagers recognize that change, if it comes, will not happen soon.

“When we first heard about it, we expected hundreds of tourists,” said Maria Angeles Hernandez, 47, who owns one of the bars and has to drive her daughter 10 miles for a play date. “But it is really a place for academics. Maybe in the long term it will give something back. But right now? Not much.”

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