See Inside June 2007

Restoring America's Big, Wild Animals

Pleistocene rewilding--a proposal to bring back animals that disappeared from North America 13,000 years ago--offers an optimistic agenda for 21st-century conservation

In the fall of 2004 a dozen conservation biologists gathered on a ranch in New Mexico to ponder a bold plan. The scientists, trained in a variety of disciplines, ranged from the grand old men of the field to those of us earlier in our careers. The idea we were mulling over was the reintroduction of large vertebrates--megafauna--to North America.

Most of these animals, such as mammoths and cheetahs, died out roughly 13,000 years ago, when humans from Eurasia began migrating to the continent. The theory--propounded 40 years ago by Paul Martin of the University of Arizona--is that overhunting by the new arrivals reduced the numbers of large vertebrates so severely that the populations could not recover. Called Pleistocene overkill, the concept was highly controversial at the time, but the general thesis that humans played a significant role is now widely accepted. Martin was present at the meeting in New Mexico, and his ideas on the loss of these animals, the ecological consequences, and what we should do about it formed the foundation of the proposal that emerged, which we dubbed Pleistocene rewilding.

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