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To conserve U.S. lands, ecologists want wolves and beavers to 're-wild' the West

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Imagine the wild, wild West, but concentrate less on the cowpokes and more on the rivers and forests, the abundance of native species. Well, this month, 20 wildlife biologists and ecologists released a proposal that suggests we should rewild parts of the western United States. They argue rescuing two species, the gray wolf and the North American beaver, is key. William Ripple is the lead author of that piece. He's a professor of ecology at Oregon State University and he joins us now. Bill Ripple, thanks for being here.

WILLIAM RIPPLE: It's good to be here, David. Thanks.

GURA: You're calling what you've proposed the Western Rewilding Network, and it's inspired by an executive order President Biden signed last year calling for the conservation of 30% of U.S. land and water by the year 2030. Help me with the terminology. What does rewilding mean?

RIPPLE: Well, rewilding aims to re-establish vital ecological processes, and it typically just involves restoring key native animal species.

GURA: Why is now the moment to do this?

RIPPLE: We're at converging crises in the American West, environmental and climate crises. We have many endangered plant and animal species. We have drought. We have wildfires. We just have a lot of different major issues going on. And by doing this type of a rewilding plan, we think that it would set up the West to be much more pristine and resilient with climate change and at the same time help biodiversity.

GURA: You focus on two species in particular, as I mentioned, the gray wolf and the North American beaver. You call these keystone species. Why are they so important?

RIPPLE: Gray wolves have significant ecological benefits by helping to naturally control overabundant prey, such as deer and elk that browse down important plant species like aspen or willow. And also through predation, wolves provide important carrion to a wide variety of scavenger species. Let me next mention beaver - by felling trees and shrubs and constructing dams, beaver enrich fish habitat. They maintain water flows during the drought. They improve water quality and generally improves habitat for wildlife. And one thing that's interesting is that the ponds and wetlands constructed by beaver can serve as natural firebreaks.

GURA: You got a bit of a political problem here, I imagine. Ranchers who don't like wolves, and in some states like Montana and Idaho, there are laws in place designed to keep local wolf populations low. How big a hurdle is that to what you've proposed?

RIPPLE: That can be a significant hurdle for parts of the West. We realize that our proposal is controversial, but we wanted to put out the best conservation science and then let the public and the policymakers and the stakeholders debate it and discuss it and make decisions as we go down the road.

GURA: Your proposal calls for removing livestock that graze on public lands, and I'm going to bet that that's not going to make ranchers happy either.

RIPPLE: Yes, what we are proposing is that we retire livestock grazing on some federal lands. We would have a program to compensate the farmers and ranchers for giving up or retiring those grazing allotments.

GURA: What would that accomplish in specific, getting livestock off those public lands?

RIPPLE: I think we have 92 threatened and endangered species on the federal lands that we studied. Many of those are threatened by livestock grazing. In many cases, livestock grazing does damage to native streams, and this is a key part of the Western ecosystem.

GURA: I know the government owns a lot of land in the West. And to many people, that's a frustratingly large amount of land. Are you and your colleagues proposing adding to the government's holdings?

RIPPLE: No, we are just proposing a reserve system on existing federally managed public lands, so there would be no acquisition of private lands.

GURA: Bill, what would you say to a skeptical rancher in Wyoming or Montana or Idaho about your proposal and the need for it at this moment in time?

RIPPLE: Yes, that's a good question. I would say, well, let's try it out in some areas and see how it works. And also some of the farmers and ranchers are having a heck of a time with the economy and climate change and fires and drought and flooding. By doing this type of a project where there could be federal incentives, it could possibly be a win-win.

GURA: William Ripple is a professor at Oregon State University. Bill, thank you very much.

RIPPLE: Thank you, David. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.
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