What would the world be like without us in it?

To the Editor:
Humans have altered 70 percent of ice-free land on the planet. Rewilding, now an international movement, is an attempt to return biodiversity and ecosystems to what they were before the mindless destruction and extraction for profit began.

A group called Rewilding Europe has set a goal of rewilding 2,471,053 acres (about half the area of New Jersey) by 2022. They have created 30 wildlife areas so far in 15 to 20 countries. They have reintroduced Keystone Species and created migration corridors connecting wild areas that are now under legal protection.

Reviving interactions between species and their habitat helps restore ecosystem functioning. Healthy ecosystems deliver many benefits: fresh water, carbon capture, fire and flood prevention, and hopefully, the stabilization of our climate.

Some of the species returned to newly wild areas were taken from zoos. Scotland has a rewilding project that will stop overgrazing and restore wetlands for habitat and carbon sequestration. People are realizing how critically important the natural world is to our survival.

What would the world be like without us in it? Nature can regenerate very quickly when given a chance to do it.

An interesting rewilding occurred as a result of an accident at the Chernobyl 4 reactor near Kiev, Ukraine in 1986. A flawed reactor design resulted in a steam explosion that caused many deaths immediately and then 5,000 thyroid cancers over time.

About 350,000 people were evacuated from an area of 2,600 square kilometers in Ukraine and 2,100 square kilometers in Belarus and that huge, contaminated area (exclusion zone) has been off limits for 30 years. In that time, all the native wildlife that had been pushed to the edge of extinction made a comeback. 

Sparrows, rooks, and white storks were gradually replaced by eagles, bears, lynx, and the wolves that once lived there. The regeneration of this area is considered Europe’s largest rewilding: the bird population grew to 231 species. The green frogs turned black but aside from that, there are no physical indications that the animals suffered from radioactivity and some populations thrived.

Tests on small animals have shown tumors, cataracts, and an increase in antioxidants. The area won’t be safe for humans to live in for thousands of years, but people are returning. The fighting in Kiev has put an end to the rewilding in Chernobyl.

Rewilding is happening slowly in the United States. The American Prairie Reserve in Montana has returned bison to the prairie to once again maintain the grasslands. They are creating a wildlife conservation area covering 3 million acres (about half the area of New Jersey).

It was the bison that kept the area a grassland and without them, native plants and animals were displaced by aggressive life forms that completely changed the ecosystem.

Wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park, amidst much controversy, to prey on an overgrown population of deer that had eaten the vegetation to the ground. The loss of that vegetation left other wildlife without food and shelter.

For too long, the wrong people have been making the wrong decisions about our interaction with the natural world. They have left destruction and pollution in their wake. Finally, some people are trying to turn it around. 

Joan Mckeon


Editor’s note: During the spring and summer planting season this year, Joan Mckeon wrote and illustrated a series of “Plant this Plant” columns for The Altamont Enterprise, highlighting local native plants.

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