- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

DENVER — Lions in your back yard?

Elephants in the driveway?

Cheetahs on the terrace?

Well, maybe, if a group of prominent ecologists gets to establish a “Pleistocene Park” on the Great Plains.

Authors of the plan — which appears in today’s issue of the journal Nature — say their idea to transplant African wildlife to North America could save many of the animals from extinction.

Josh Donlan, a graduate student at Cornell University and one of the plan’s co-authors, concedes that skeptics may worry more about the people on the Great Plains who could become extinct at the mercy of the lions.

“Obviously, gaining public acceptance is going to be a huge issue, especially when you talk about reintroducing predators. There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts. That includes realizing predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions.”

Nevertheless, the scientists say the relocated animals could restore biodiversity on this continent to a condition closer to what nature was like before humans overran the landscape.

The idea of “rewilding” the Great Plains grew from a retreat at Ladder Ranch near Truth or Consequences, N.M., a 155,550-acre spread owned by media mogul and conservationist Ted Turner.

The ecologists suggest starting with zoo animals. The perimeters of newly created reserves would be fenced. “We aren’t backing a truck up to some dump site in the dark and turning lose a bunch of elephants,” says Cornell University ecologist Harry W. Greene, another of the plan’s authors.

While most modern African species never lived on the American prairie, the scientists believe that today’s animals could duplicate the natural roles played by their departed, even larger cousins — mastodons, camels and saber-toothed cats — that roamed for more than 1 million years alongside antelope and bison.

Relocating large animals to vast ecological parks and private reserves over the next century would begin to restore the balance and offer new ecotourism opportunities.

Some ecologists said it is important to try such a bold plan. Otherwise, they said, hundreds more species are likely to go extinct in coming decades and entire ecosystems — such as grasslands — will fundamentally change.

“We’re beginning to get backed into a corner,” said Terry Chapin of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “It’s something worth trying.”

Some scientists and conservationists, however, hoot.

“It is not restoration to introduce animals that were never here,” says University of Washington anthropologist Donald K. Grayson. “Why introduce Old World camels and lions when there are North American species that could benefit from the same kind of effort?”

Other conservationists say the plan would further damage the prospects of African species on their native turf, as well as that continent’s hopes for sustainable economic development.

“Such relocations would affect future tourism opportunities,” says Elizabeth Wamba, the East Africa spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Nairobi, Kenya. “The welfare of the animals would have been reduced by transporting and exposing them to different eco-climatic conditions.”

Ecologists at Mr. Turner’s Ladder Ranch intend to reintroduce the Bolson tortoise right away. These 100-pound burrowers were found across the Southwest, but now survive in a corner of northern Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert.

The extent of Mr. Turner’s interest in the larger rewilding plan is not clear. Mike Phillips, who directs the Turner Endangered Species Fund, was unavailable for comment.

The renewed presence of many large mammals might turn back the ecological clock in a variety of subtle ways. For example, elephants eat woody plants that have overtaken grasslands. Could they act as Rototillers to restore the prairie?

Lions would be a harder sell, particularly to the elk herds that already live there.

“Lions eat people,” Mr. Donlan, the Cornell graduate student, says. “There has to be a pretty serious attitude shift on how you view predators.”

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