Researchers from Oregon State University recently proposed a plan to “rebuild the West” by creating and supporting healthy populations of beavers and wolves on an interconnected network of federally owned land. The authors of a study published in BioScience propose reallocating large portions of federal land to build a network of protected areas based on suitable habitats for the gray wolf and American beaver. The proposed “Western Reconstruction Network” covers more than 193,000 square miles spanning across 11 western states.
“It’s an ambitious idea, but the American West is going through an unprecedented period of converging crises, including extended droughts and water scarcity, extreme heat waves, wildfires, and biodiversity loss,” lead author William Ripple said in a news release from Ohio State University. .
Researchers say the Rebuild Network will address the biodiversity crisis by focusing on public lands that are home to 92 threatened or endangered species — including popular game species like wise grouse and trout, as well as lesser-known natives like the Oregon spotted frog. The New Mexico prairie rat jumping prairie.
The researchers suggest that the presence of beavers and wolves on landscapes could have positive cascading effects on these species as well as the entire ecosystem. They point to the role beavers play in restoring aquatic habitats and improving water quality, and they assert that wolves will help control ungulate populations.
“By simply allowing beavers and wolves to do what they evolved to do, they can restore the ecological integrity of an entire landscape,” said Joanna Lambert, a co-author on the report and a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
In addition to restoring suitable habitat for wolves and beavers, the report highlights livestock grazing as a major threat to landscape health. The authors conclude that livestock grazing degrades waterways and wetlands, prevents plant species regeneration, and threatens 48 percent of endangered or threatened species within the proposed network.
The plan proposes a 29 percent reduction in grazing allowances on federal lands within the eleven states. The authors note that persuading livestock producers to retire from their allocations will require the establishment of a large federal compensation program. The authors also suggest that the proposal can only work with input from various stakeholders, including farm owners, fishermen, recreation professionals, and indigenous governments.
Opposition to Reconstruction
The proposal is very ambitious, and it is questionable whether implementation of even part of the rebuilding network would be possible for land managers in the West. First, there is the question of public opinion about beavers and wolves, two of the most controversial mammals in the United States. Wolves are particularly controversial, and have long been at the center of ongoing legal battles. Earlier this week, environmental groups filed another lawsuit that would force a decision on whether the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population should be returned to the endangered species list.
Beavers, whose populations perished during the days of western expansion, were also a sticky subject due to their inherent ability to alter landscapes – potentially damaging agricultural and residential lands. Although the species is gaining more support for its role in mitigating climate change and drought, beavers are still considered widespread pests in many places across the region.
The plan also pits the environmental needs of the West against one of its biggest economic drivers: livestock. By eliminating grazing from federal lands, the rebuilding network could cripple one of the region’s largest industries.
In Oregon, the cattle industry alone contributes nearly $1 billion annually to the state’s economy. Most ranchers also live and work in the eastern part of the state, where most of the rebuilding suggested by the researchers takes place. Requiring ranchers to remove their cows from federal lands to make way for wolves is a recipe for intense conflict in nearly every rural community east of the Cascade Range.
The study authors seem to realize this. They assert that the United States is approaching a point in time when dramatic measures are necessary to protect the West, writing: “Although our proposal may at first glance appear controversial or even fanciful, we believe that super-ambitious measures are needed.”