The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: literature Page 2 of 4

Connecting reintroduction and deextinction

Ever since I watched the TEDx DeExtinction event in March 2013, I’ve been thinking about how deextinction efforts need to consider the history of reintroductions if they are to be successful. I published a Viewpoint piece in Bioscience in September 2013 with some of those thoughts. Because of that publication and putting my opinions into the scholarly conversation, in the last couple of months, I’ve had the chance to talk with a couple journalists covering deextinction.

The June 2014 issue of Bioscience included “Extinction is forever … or is it?” by Leslie Ogden (available OpenAccess). When I talked to Leslie, I stressed the need to consider the destination of these animals being brought back. Because they will be going somewhere, and that somewhere probably has people in it, deextinction moves from a scientific question to a cultural question. Here’s the section of the article where Leslie talks about my work on reintroduction histories:

Reintroduction from captivity of organisms extinct in the wild already has precedents and an institutional basis in guidelines by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Spanning the breach from reintro­duction to de-extinction may be only a matter of time. Dolly Jørgensen, an environmental historian in the Department of Ecology and Environ­mental science at Umeå University, Sweden, who wrote about reintroduction and de-extinction in a 2013 issue of BioScience(doi:10.1093/bioscience/63.9.719), thinks that we need to look to history. Her research is focused on examining the history of the reintroduction to Sweden of the beaver, a species that was extinct in most of Europe by the end of the 1800s. She also studies the history of the musk ox, which was reintroduced from Greenland after being absent in Scandinavia for about 10,000 years. With media attention focused on the front end of the de-extinction debate (the making of the animal), Jørgensen (amused that she shares a name with the first cloned mammal), thinks we cannot ignore other aspects of the process. “If it’s ever going to be more than just a monster on display, then we have to think that it’s going to gosomewhere.” Jørgensen thinks that it is important to examine the pitfalls of reintroductions of the recent past. “If you look at cases where predators have tried to be reintroduced following periods of local extinction—like the lynx in Scotland and wolves in Europe—what you see is that it’s a very contested space,” she says.

For the European beaver, remnant populations of the decimated species existed in small pockets in several countries, one of which was Norway. A passionate county museum director, Eric Festin, had the idea to repopulate an area named Beaver River Valley (Bjurälvsdalen in Swedish) with its long-missing namesake. The reintroduction of less than 100 beavers between 1922 and 1940 has resulted in more than 100,000 beavers now, which Jørgensen says makes it the most successful reintroduction ever. But the consequences include the beavers’ habit of damming, which creates newly flooded areas, which, in turn, has an impact on landowners. There are also conflicts with forestry, “because beavers like trees too,” says Jørgensen. It’s not all bad, she says, but reintroductions have both positive and negative outcomes that may not be foreseen. “You have to be dynamic when a species is actually successful, because you may end up with a problem,” she says. “History can be an example to look to, though not necessarily a guide.” And whether or not we can achieve—or want to achieve—de-extinction, says Jørgensen “is more than just a scientific question; it’s a cultural question too.”

I was happy to help Leslie get permission to reproduce a great picture of the first reintroduction of beaver in Sweden alongside this section. I think it shows the cultural work of reintroduction in action.

"Undoing Forever" radio program on CBC Ideas

“Undoing Forever” radio program on CBC Ideas

I also had the opportunity to be interviewed for the radio program “Undoing forever” by Britt Wray, which was aired as part of the Canadian Broadcast Company series Ideas on 19 June 2014 (the audio is available to listen to online). This was my first real radio interview: I got to go to the SVT Radio station and sit in a studio with a headset and mic and technician in the next room while Britt and her production crew sat in Canada. It was great!

One of my quotes is in the opening sequence: “We need to be talking about, oh, not just technically could make it or not, but: Where’s it going to go? What are going to be the challenges? How are people going understand this?” Then my part of the interview starts just after the 43 minute mark of the program. I wanted to stress that while bringing a species back to life may sound like a wonderful idea from afar, we have to look at the social and cultural issues that appear locally. There are always challenges to living with/near animals. Environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren also appears in the program immediately after me. He stressed the need to mourn extinct animals in order to be able to learn from mistakes.

This particular program was heavily weighted toward the passenger pigeon because several of the scientists interviewed are directly involved in that research. As I listened to their comments in the program about the billions of passenger pigeons that once flew in the US, I couldn’t help but think of all the problems they would cause today. Do scientists really think there would be a place in the US for huge flocks of birds to go? I don’t. I think they would end up being labelled pests and efforts would be taken to greatly limit their spread. It wouldn’t matter that they had once been extinct and all kinds of time and money had been spent to bring them back. This is the reality of reintroduction: people are perfectly happy with animals as long as they don’t get in the way.

Drawing lines in time

Deciding what constitutes a ‘native’ species and what does not–and thus what counts as a ‘reintroduction’ or not–is simply not simple. There is no single accepted definition. This is really obvious if we look at differences among the European countries’ Red Lists.

Red Lists have been made at a country-by-country level for many nations in the EU. Contrary to popular belief, these lists do not capture only endangered and threatened species. Very common species are included on Red Lists under  the category ‘Least Concern’. Rather than endangerment lists, Red Lists are listing of species that ‘belong’ in a country. I use ‘belong’ here intentionally because the lists often do not talk in terms of things being ‘native’ or not but rather whether or not they will be considered by the scientist authors for the list. While I could have a whole discussion about the categorizations and terms used on these lists, something which Ursula Heise has been very involved with, I want to talk about the use of time to establish belonging.

Species history matters in the decision about whether or not a species appears on a Red List, which implicitly is a decision about its status of belonging in a nation. Yet there is no consistent use of time across the EU. A short sampling of some country Red Lists shows that a species is considered for the list when:

  • Sweden: it arrived in Sweden before 1800, or ‘spontaneously arrived in Sweden at a later stage without human assistance’
  • Norway: it was present in Norway before 1800 and has been reproducing in Norway after 1800, thus excluding those which reached Norway through the ‘help of people or human activities since 1800’
  • Denmark: it appeared in reproducing populations after 1850
  • Finland: it is present before 1800; species intentionally or unintentionally entering Finland after 1800 are not evaluated
  • Ireland: it has been in Ireland prior to 1500 and still exists; post-1500 introductions are excluded
  • France: it has been in France since 1500; post-1500 introductions are excluded
  • Germany: it was in Germany prior to 1492 and had a breeding population for at least 25 years after that
  • Spain: must have been present prior to 1900; species introduced in the 20th century are excluded

The spread is wide and varied in where the scientists who sat on these Red List committees drew the line between a species that can be listed–it belongs–and one that can’t. There is no right or wrong in these choices because there is no objective way to do this boundary-making work. Setting time limits is subjective. And it is also political. Some of the Red Lists mention specific animals, notably the beaver, muskox, and wild boar, as exclusions because of their history. This has political implications because it excludes those species from having endangerment status or requiring special protection measures.

This is why it is important to start questioning how and why such limits get made. History determines belonging.

They didn’t know better … or did they?

This week, I’ve run into something in the scientific literature about the beaver reintroductions that disturbs me. It is the trend for natural scientists to assume that people in the past did something because they didn’t know better. The assumption is that our increasing scientific ‘knowledge’ leads us to make better decisions. I think this is a very naïve understanding of both human behaviour and scientific knowledge.

Here’s what got me thinking about this. In an article from 2012 about the North American beaver as invasive species in Europe, the authors (who all have done extensive biological work on beaver populations in Europe) wrote:

The North American beaver Castor Canadensis (Cc) was introduced to Eurasia in 1937 to supplement an ongoing reintroduction of beaver to Finland instigated in 1935, initially with Eurasian beaver C. fiber (Cf) from neighbouring Norway (Lahti & Helminen 1974). At the time, the taxonomical status of beaver from both continents was still in question. For the past two centuries, many leading zoologists had considered all beavers to belong either to one species or two subspecies (Morgan 1868). It is therefore understandable if those who conducted the reintroduction were oblivious to the possibility that a new and potentially damaging species was perhaps being introduced. At the time, few laymen would have suspected that animals with seemingly indistinguishable exteriors, despite being from different continents, could belong to two different species. It was not until 36 years later that Lavrov & Orlov (1973) determined that the genus Castor, in fact, consisted of two species based on different chromosome number (Cf1/448, Cc1/440).

The authors have stated two things: (1) that “many leading scientists” thought all beavers were one species and (2) genetics was the only thing that definitely distinguished Castor fiber (the species in Europe) from Castor canadensis (the species in North America). These claims might seem innocuous, but it rubs me the wrong way considering my historical research on beaver reintroduction.

Beaver illustration from Lewis Morgan's The American Beaver and His Works (1868)

Beaver illustration from Lewis Morgan’s The American Beaver and His Works (1868)

The problem is that the only evidence these biologists give of these “many leading scientists” who think beavers were one species is one book from 1868. That book, The American Beaver and His Works by Lewis H. Morgan, does indeed include an appendix which argues that the skeletal measurements of the European and American beavers were close enough that they did not indicate that the two populations were separate species. Morgan thought that separation of the populations had produced some minor physical differences but that the animals would likely be able to interbreed. Castor canadensis (North American beaver) was first identified by Heinrich Kuhl in 1820 based on a specimen in the British Museum collection as something different from the European beaver described by Linnaeus. Morgan wrote the appendix as a reply to scientists who had continue to claim the beavers were separate species based on Kuhl’s description.

That was 1868 and to be honest I haven’t found any evidence that Morgan’s claim was taken seriously. When Horace Martin published Castorologia, or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver (an oft-cited work) in 1892, the skeletal differences were taken for fact: “In 1825, Frederick Cuvier pointed out a difference in the skills, which has since been recognized as establishing the species” (p.4). It seems to me that the scientific consensus was that the beavers were two different species.

On top of that, we have to remember that science doesn’t stand still: do these authors think that a book from 1868 represents what people thought nearly 70 years later in 1937 at the time of the release of Castor canadensis in Finland?

One way to get at that is to look at the use of the two species names in times contemporary to the release. The Skansen zoo in Stockholm provides a window into this because they ended up with both European and Canadian beavers in their collection. Skansen produced a guide booklet that identified and discussed each of the animals that a visitor would see. When Skansen got their first beavers in 1909/10, which were from North America, a beaver entry in the 1910 guidebook was written which listed the beavers under the scientific name Castor canadensis Kuhl. When Skansen put the European beavers on display that would eventually be set out in the reintroduction in Jämtland in 1922, the guidebook was updated to the scientific name Castor fiber L. The text describes the European beaver but the last paragraph of the description noted: “In a section of the same enclosure, there are two examples of the Canadian beaver. These are distinguished by their darker fur and wider tales. These came to Skansen in 1909 and 1910 respectively” (italics in original). In this popular scientific text produced by the zoo director for public consumption, there is a clear distinction between the species and the correct labels are placed on the correct specimens.

I do not know who organised the release of the Canadian beavers in Finland, but I do know that the reintroduction of European beavers in Finland was a highly scientific affair. A letter from P.M. Jenssen Tveit to the Norwegian Agricultural Ministry in June 1935 asked for permission to export 10 pairs of beavers to the Finnish State. Dr. Valto M. Klemola (identified in the letter in the extravagant German tradition as Hrr. Universitets Docent Dr. phil. agr. & veter.), who was the Finnish State’s Hunting Inspector, had visited Jenssen Tveit to study the biology of beavers, on the recommendation of the  Norwegian Agricultural Ministry. Dr. Klemola concluded from his study that the Norwegian and Finnish environment and vegetation was very similar and recommended beaver be “reintroduced in the land of a hundred thousand lakes.” Jenssen Tveit was thus requesting permission to capture and transport the beavers for this project. This was no “fly by the seat of the pants” affair: an educated Finnish official had done a study and concluded that reintroduction of European beaver was viable.

So what happened? Why were Canadian beavers also introduced in 1937? I don’t know if there are Finnish primary sources like letters about the Canadian beaver import, but if it was indeed done by some non-academics (“laymen” as the 2012 paper calls them), I can compare it to an import plan in Jämtland. A local named Johan Larsson wrote a letter to Eric Festin in June 1921 about Festin’s proposal to reintroduce beavers to Jämtland. Larsson (quite a character who had travelled the world, from Canada where he worked as a fur trapper to New Zealand and South Africa) wrote to Festin to explain that he had long planned to bring beavers back to Sweden. He had planned to put them into an enclosure on his property and breed them with the intent of selling them to people to release. He was intending to use beavers imported from Canada which he felt would be easy to get. Luckily, his plans had never materialized (in his very long letters to Festin, it’s obvious that he’s the kind of guy who dreams big but doesn’t follow through).

In the letter, he reveals an interesting position about the Canadian versus European beaver translocation:

Your plan to introduce beavers to Jämtland meets not only with my full appreciation but also my greatest satisfaction, particularly because it is Norwegian or Scandinavian beaver. If I should succeed with American beaver, so much the better, because we can’t have too many beavers come to Sweden anyway. I’ve only seen one beaver in Europe, and it was at Skansen in Stockholm in autumn 1909, but from what I understand, the European and the American beaver almost completely the same kind of animal, and I assume that these two types should without difficulty be made ​​to breed with each other. Such crossbreeding is considered  favourable with other species so why not also with the beaver. It ought therefore to be an advantage, if we bring a few beavers of both kinds into the country.

In this passage, Larsson is clear that American and European beavers as separate things but he believes that they could interbreed, with the possible result of a more hardy animal (he is thinking here of domestic breed crossbreeding). It’s also interesting that he mentions seeing the beaver in Skansen in 1909 and thinks that it was a European beaver, since it was in reality a North American beaver like the ones he trapped in Canada so of course they looked the same! If Larsson would have been successful in breeding and releasing Castor canadensis, would it have been because he was ignorant? Yes and no. He was wrong that the two kinds of species would interbreed. But his concern was to have beavers in Sweden, so he would have accomplished that. In other words, while he knew the beaver types were in some ways different, he didn’t care about it. And not caring is not the same as not knowing.

Although I don’t know for sure, it’s entirely possible that the Finns who released the 7 beavers from New York had the same kind of attitude as Larsson: although the species were different, that didn’t matter, because what matttered to them was having beavers at all. Where people in the 1920s and 1930s drew the lines for ‘acceptable’ introduction/reintroduction was not the same place as we would draw it now, but that doesn’t mean they were “oblivious.”

State symbols

I recently ran across the list of US State Insects (yes, most states have a named mascot insect) and an amazing fact struck me: over half of the states have designated non-native insects as their State Insect!

Sixteen states have named the European honey bee (Apis mellifera, also known as the Western honey bee) as their official insect, plus one named it as their “agricultural insect”. This honey bee is a native to Eurasia and Africa. It was introduced into North America by the early 1600s for honey production and subsequently spread directly and indirectly throughout the continent. There’s a nice table in E.E. Crane’s The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting giving the dates of honey bee importation to the US. Six other states have named the 7-spotted ladybug as their state insect. This is another European import which was brought to the US for crop management as pest control.

I was able to find the text of the original resolution for the State of Georgia when they decided to name the honey bee as the state insect:

Joint Resolution of the Georgia General Assembly
April 18, 1975
No. 48 (Senate Resolution No. 99).

A Resolution
Designating the honeybee as the official State insect; and for other purposes.
Whereas, honey produced by honeybees provides significant income to an important section of Georgia’s economy; and
Whereas, the honeybee is a valuable asset to the agricultural interests of this State; and
Whereas, if it were not for the cross-pollination activities of honeybees for over fifty different crops, we would soon have to live on cereals and nuts; and
Whereas, the honeybee far surpasses any other insects insofar as its contributions to man; and
Whereas, the importance of the honeybee to the agricultural interest and the welfare of the citizens of the State should be appropriately recognized.

Now, therefore, be it resolved by the General Assembly of Georgia that the honeybee is hereby designated as the State of Georgia’s official insect.

This is a fascinating statement that would take some deep analysing to really pull apart, but I’ll just mention two observations. First, honey bees have value — they provide an ecosystem service for agricultural production that directly benefits humans in their mouths and wallets. Second, the honey bee is said to be the most valuable insect of any to man (although whether or not that is true would be up for debate). Thus, the legislature thought it appropriate for it to be the state insect. But in so doing, the Georgia (and all the other states who have passed similar legislation) have made a claim about the insect’s belonging. The honey bee belongs in Georgia because of its value. This claim stands in spite of scientific studies (like Goulson 2003 andThomson 2004) that the European honey bee is an invasive species that negatively affects local bee populations.

Since I was thinking about these State Insects, I decided to look at the the lists of State Birds and Mammals too. And sure enough, another non-native appears. The State of South Dakota has named the ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) as its bird, even though it is native to Asia. Pheasants were first introduced as game birds to Oregon in 1881 and supposedly only 11 years later, 50,000 pheasants were bagged in one season (only 26 birds had been released so that’s success!). They have since been released in most states and spread of their own accord throughout the Rocky Mountains and Midwest. The pheasant, like the bee and ladybug, is seemingly ubiquitous. At a cultural level, it belongs in North America.

Monarch the Bear, a Californian grizzly bear, on display at the California Academy of Sciences.

Monarch the Bear, a California grizzly bear, on display at the California Academy of Sciences. Photo by Payton Chung.

In the mammals list, there were no non-natives (at least that I identified), but there was one remarkable choice: the California grizzly bear as California’s state mammal. At face value this would make sense — the bear is on the California state flag and seal, so it has a clear emblematic status. But, the caveat is that the California grizzly bear is extinct. The last confirmed California grizzly was shot and killed in 1922. So the state animal is not something that you could make a trip into the mountains to see. It is not something that will be on display at the local zoo. Instead, it is stuffed in a museum. As a memorial perhaps it is fitting that the grizzly is listed as a state mammal to capture a sense of California’s history.

These state symbols should remind us that belongingness and nativeness are two different things. Cultural ideas and ecological ones are not the same, and it seems to me that cultural notions of what belongs or not will often trump scientific positions to the contrary.

Ranking reintroduction

George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013)

George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013)

I recently finished reading Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot for an article I’m working on about rewilding. Much of Monbiot’s vision for a “rewilded” world is based on animal reintroduction. He presents a table of large mammals and birds that could be reintroduced in Britain in which he gave scores from 1-10 indicating his perception of the “suitability” of the species. He writes that the highest scores are

the reintroductions that might be tried first, on the grounds that they are most likely to succeed, to be politically acceptable and to help restore dynamic processes in the rewilding lands or seas of this country in the current (and warming) climate.

Here’s a summary of his list by score:

  • 10: beaver, wild boar, moose, white-tailed sea eagle, osprey, goshawk, capercaillie, common crane, white stork, spoonbill, night heron, dalmatian pelican, blue stag beetle [I’m not sure why this is in the list since it is not a large mammal or bird but neither is the sturgeon given a score of 8]
  • 9: lynx, great bustard
  • 8: European sturgeon
  • 7: European bison, wolf, grey whale, eagle owl
  • 4: wolverine
  • 3: wild horse, bear, hazel grouse
  • 2: reindeer, elephant, black rhinoceros, walrus
  • 1: saiga antelope, lion, spotted hyena, hippopotamus

I want to remark on a few things I see in these rankings.

First, there is the role of species history in the ranking. Monbiot writes that he has ranked down species that last existed in Britain in the Ice Age and Preboreal period immediately afterward because “it is likely to be less suited to the current climate than those which have been hunted to extinction.” Yet, looking at the table we see that climatic suitability is not the issue–after all, wild horses which are ranked down for being Preboreal would have no problem existing in Britain and they are already being used in restoration projects like Wicken Fen–but rather the culpability of humans in the extinction of the species. The extirpation of wild horses, reindeer and saiga antelope, which are ranked very low, are blamed on climate change in the text, but the extinction of wolverines in the same period is said to be human-caused and it gets a higher score. Why the species died out 8,000 years ago matters in Monbiot’s rewilding scheme.

Or does it? Monbiot gives a 7 for European bison (wisent) which according to the table died out between 15,000 and 25,000 years ago before the peak of glaciation in Britain. I can only attribute that high rank to the “charismatic” nature of wisent and recent reintroductions elsewhere in the 20th-21st centuries. At one point in the text, Monbiot tells the reader that he will not “disguise” his reasons for wanting to reintroduce animals; instead he lays them out:

My reasons arise from my delight in the marvels of nature, its richness and its limitless capacity to surprise; fro the sense of freedom, of the thrill that comes from roaming in a landscape or seascape without knowing what I might see next, what might loom from the woods or water, what might be watching me without my knowledge.

Obviously, Monbiot believes seeing a wisent around the corner would be more exciting than seeing a wild horse, and lynx more exciting than wolverines.

Second, there is the social acceptability factor. Monbiot has dramatically ranked down the bear, which he says has “public safety issues and other conflicts” but the lynx and wolf are not as low and his comment is that “widespread public consultation/consent” would be needed for these. It is not clear what makes the bear inherently so much more dangerous or unacceptable as the wolf. Consultation and/or public opinion is not mentioned for any other species and human-animal conflict only comes up for the white-tailed sea eagle. It is interesting that Monbiot considers only predators as capable of producing social conflict even though the case of the beaver reintroduction in Scotland (which he in fact discusses in the book) shows that non-predator reintroduction can be highly contentious. In the IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines, any reintroduction should involve consultation and the public.

Third, bird reintroductions are ranked very highly. Many of the birds he mentions have already been reintroduced in limited areas or have reintroduced themselves, which I previously discussed in the case of cranes in Britain. Almost all of these birds died out within the last 500 years. Monbiot doesn’t write much about bird reintroductions as examples in the text, so I’m not sure if he recognises the difficulty of establishing breeding pairs. In his list, almost every bird gets a 10 and I don’t know if they should based on feasibility.

Fourth, Monbiot inserted the mega-fauna proxies (elephant, rhino, hippo, lion, & hyena). He’s basing the idea of reintroducing surrogates for these long-lost species on the Pleistocene rewilding notion put forward in an article in 2005 by Donlan et al. in Nature and the Pleistocene Park in Russia. In the table, we are told that the straight-tusked elephant, narrow-nosed rhino, and hippos were last in Britain 115,000 years ago, although the “wooly” versions of elephants and rhinos lasted 100,000 years longer, and lions and hyenas died out in Europe  (not actually in today’s Britain) 11,000 years ago. He says in the text that he wants to start conversations about reintroducing elephants, since he sees them not being missed as a symptom of Shifting Baseline Syndrome, i.e. we don’t recognise realities from the distant past. Based on the rankings–all 1s and 2s–he sees these as imminently impractical reintroductions, so the reason to include them at all must be to surprise the reader; it’s a shock tactic.

The reintroduction ideas in Feral have a certain sense of wildness about them–Monbiot doesn’t want us to be constrained by logic or science, but rather wants us to get “wild and crazy” to get a thrill from nature, to be enchanted. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the inconsistencies I see in his list. Maybe Feral will serve as a positive reintroduction conversation-starter, but I hope too many don’t fall under its enchantment.

Denization & acclimatization

This week I was at a conference quite unrelated to my project on reintroduction: the Blood Conference about blood in medieval and early modern culture. But surprisingly, there was one paper that brought up an issue quite relevant to this research.

In her keynote “Blood of the Grape,” Frances Dolan (UC Davis) discussed the early modern desire to cultivate grapes on English soil because it was thought that these grapes would make wine that was more fit for consumption by English. It was basically a terroir argument: that the special characteristics of a place (its soil, geography, climate) infuse agricultural products with certain qualities. This was combined with an ethnic argument about the population (that people too were imbued with special qualities from their place of origin), and a humoral theory understanding of food which meant that the food consumed should match the characteristics of the person. So in the case of wine, English agricultural treatises advocated importing vines from France to grow on English soil and inherit the English terroir instead of Englishmen drinking wine imported directly from France.

In this history, the English thought that the vines would acclimatize. I’ve only seen scholarship about acclimatization, the intentional movement of animals, birds, fish, and plants for the benefit of humans, within the nineteenth century colonial context that witnessed European nations spread their settlers across the globe (for example Dunlap 1997, Osborne 2000Ritvo 2012). France boasted the first acclimatization society founded in 1854 and likeminded groups sprang up throughout the major European powers and their colonies. There were nationalist and imperialist notions behind many of the projects aimed at aesthetic beautification, hunting opportunities, and agricultural improvement, whether it was introducing songbirds in America as a way of making it more aesthetically British or moving camels to Australia to make the deserts accessible. While the groups often looked to introduce species from their homeland into colonies as a mode of colonial development, some species were moved outside of that paradigm from colony to homeland. For example, the muskox domestication proposal which developed first in Sweden in 1900 latched on to acclimatization sentiments, which saw nature as a bounty simply waiting to be harvested for the benefit of the country. Acclimatization proponents believed that the imported animals or plants would adapt to the new surroundings and naturalize, i.e. live and grow as if they were from their new home.

The crown imperial flower which is called a "denizon" by John Gerard in The herball or Generall historie of plantes (1633)

The crown imperial flower which is called a “denizon” by John Gerard in The herball or Generall historie of plantes (1633)

I asked Dr. Dolan if these early modern writers had thought about their actions in terms of acclimatization as well. It turns out they did not use that term, but they did use another: denization. In English legal thought of the 16th century, denizens were foreigners who lived in a country and were extended certain rights but were not considered citizens. This idea that originally applied to people was soon applied to plants.

I found several examples of this usage in the Early English Books Online database. John Gerard’s The herball or Generall historie of plantes from 1633 noted that lillies were “natives of the Pyrenean mountaines, and of late yeares are become Denizons in some of our English gardens” and crown imperial flowers “hath been brought from Constantinople amongst other bulbous roots, and made Denizons in our London gardens, whereof I haue great plenty.” In his  forestry tract Sylva (1670), John Evelyn argued that the success of horse chestnut tree plantings should give “encouragement to Denizen other strangers amongst us.”

While denizens were desirable, they were not always realistic. In A philosophical discourse of earth relating to the culture and improvement of it for vegetation, and the propagation of plants (1676), Evelyn noted that “plants do not easily become denizons in all places” because rains and micro-climates differed. Yet, Evelyn certainly thought many more trees could be “endenizon’d” than was currently the case in England:

And what if some of the Trees of those Countrys (especially such as aspire to be Timber, and may be of improvement amongst us) were more frequently brought to us likewise here in England; since we daily find how many rare Exotics and strangers with little care, become endenizon’d, and so contented to live amongst us, as may be seen in the Platanus, Constantinople Chessnut, the greater Glandiferos Ilex, Cork, Nux Vesicaria (which is an hard Wood fit for the Turner, &c.) the Styrax, Bead tree, the famous Lotus, Virginian Acatia, Guaicum Patavinum, Paliurus, Cypress, Pines, Fir, and sundry others, which grow already in our Gardens expos’d to the Weather; and so doubtless would many more (from Sylva p131)

For Evelyn, the denizens would be “content to live amongst us” and serve productive uses if only shown a “little care.”

This sounds to me remarkably like acclimatization arguments of the 19th century, the ones that show up in my muskox story. It’s a reminder that few ideas are really new. Ideas like acclimatization often have earlier incarnations but the historians writing about them are limited by their self-made boundaries in time and geography and may not recognize an older word for the same idea.

Wildlife Comeback Report

Deinet et al., Wildlife Comeback in Europe (2013)

Deinet et al., Wildlife Comeback in Europe (2013)

A few months back, in September 2013, the conservation initiative Rewilding Europe issued the “Wildlife Comeback in Europe”. The report was written as a joint effort with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), BirdLife International, and the European Bird Census Council (EBCC) and got international news coverage, including articles in BBC News and New York Times. I haven’t had the chance to write about the report, but I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on it because of its potential reach.

Unlike most environmental news these days, the message was positive. The BBC article quoted Prof Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, as saying

We’re trying to find success stories so we can learn from them, so we can see what works and scale that up across the conservation movement globally. And it is really important that we focus on success and where we are winning.

I’m a fan of positive stories. I think environmental history since its beginnings as an environmentalist critique has been far too declensionist, too caught up in pointing out how everything has gone downhill. While that model of scholarship is successful at pointing out the problems of the world, it is often much less adequate for pointing out potential solutions. So I think we need to start thinking about environmental history as a possible instrument for change, and that means thinking positively and hopefully, which is something I’ve tried to do in my own work.

Reintroduction as an environmental practice is one of these positive narratives. Sure there is a declensionist story that can be told about animals brought to extinction that reintroduction is merited – but I prefer focusing on how and why the reintroduction itself happened.

European beavers are the greatest success story in the “Wildlife Comeback in Europe” report. Beavers had the greatest range expansion of any mammal in Europe, having expanded the area in which it lives 550% since 1955 (and since that is after the first reintroduction projects, the percentage would be even higher since 1900). The estimated +337,000 beavers in Europe in 2013 dwarfs the population estimate of 1,200 in 1900.

I was, however, disappointed with the chapter in the report about the Eurasian Beaver. I know that Duncan Halley, who has written about beaver reintroductions from a natural science perspective, reviewed the chapter. I don’t know where the authors got all their material, but several of the things they say about the historical reintroduction of the beaver are wrong.

First, the report claims, “Initially, the focus of the efforts was fur-harvesting, only later did conservation and ecosystem management become more prominent” (p.151) It also later states, “these efforts were motivated by the fur trade, comprised hard releases and lacked habitat suitability assessments” (p.154). There are two problems with these statements. (1) As far as the earliest reintroductions, which happened in Sweden and parts of Norway in the 1920s and 1930s, fur-harvesting was never a reason given for bringing back beavers. The entire effort was indeed framed as returning a missing part of nature, often in conjunction with attempts to protect areas as nature reserves. I’ve previously written about the involvement of hunting groups in the reintroductions who never talked about hunting beavers in the future and the Swedish conservation revolution inherent in the reintroduction project. All of these efforts should most certainly be classified as nature conservation. (2) In Sweden, habitat assessments were indeed carried out in the 1920s and 1930s in order to select suitable release sites. In the case of the first release in 1922, Dr. Sven Arbman wrote an entire report about the general habitat needs of the beaver and the provisions at the particular release location. I think this is a case where modern scientists are assuming that they know/do better than their historical counterparts – when the reality is that nature conservation and scientific assessments of habitat suitability went on 90 years ago as well.

Second, I found it odd that the discussion of the reintroduction efforts starts with Latvia, instead of with Sweden, which was the first reintroduction site in Europe; but that’s more a narrative structure complaint than a fact complaint. However, in the paragraph about Latvia, the authors say that beavers were reintroduced to Latvia “in 1927 and 1935 using individuals from Swedish stock” (p.151). This is wrong. The beavers brought to Latvia were not from Sweden — after all, Swedes were just reintroducing beavers themselves at the same time — but rather from Norway.

Part of the correspondence between P.M. Jensen Tveit and the Latvian General Counsel in Oslo in 1939 about relocating the beavers in Latvia. From National Archives of Norway, Archive folder RA/S-6087/D/Da/Dab/L0090.

Part of the correspondence between P.M. Jensen Tveit and the Latvian General Counsel in Oslo in 1939 about relocating the beavers in Latvia. From National Archives of Norway, Archive folder RA/S-6087/D/Da/Dab/L0090.

I found correspondence in the National Archives of Norway between P.M. Jensen Tveit and the General Counsel of Latvia in Oslo that indicates that Norwegian beavers were reintroduced in Latvia in 1928. I also found the license for Jensen Tveit to catch 2 pairs of beavers in November 1934 to send to Latvia for reintroduction. Each pair cost 200 kr and in all probability, the beavers were sent in spring 1935. The population expanded so much that in March 1939, the General Counsel asked Jensen Tveit to travel to Latvia to catch some of the beavers and translocate them to elsewhere in the country. The Latvians requested Tveit’s assistance because “there is no one there that can catch them alive.”

Third, although the Report states that the last beaver in Lithuania was not killed until 1938 (this statement comes from Halley 2003) and reintroductions happened between 1947 and 1959, it doesn’t mention that the Lithuanian State had actually already arranged for beaver translocation in 1934. In a letter from Jensen Tveit to Eric Festin dated 22 December 1934 in the Jamtli archive, Jensen Tveit mentions that he will be delivering two pair there in the spring or summer to strengthen the bloodlines, i.e. genetic diversity. I do not know if these additional beavers were also dead by 1938, or if the statement about the beaver’s extinction date in Lithuania is wrong. I would probably have to do primary research in the Lithuanian archives to answer that.

I appreciate the effort to include the beaver reintroduction story as a positive conservation history that more contemporary reintroduction efforts can learn from. But I find it frustrating that natural scientists continue to write these kind of documents without turning to historians to assist them. After all, the document is really about species histories, and who better to write a good history than a historian?

Reflections on rewilding

I have recorded a new podcast with Jan Oosthoek at Environmental History Resources called “Desire for the Wild – Wild Desires? The Trouble with Rewilding”. In the podcast, I offer some reflections about a workshop I attended back in the spring at Cambridge and Wicken Fen in England. Paul Warde wrote up his own thoughts about the workshop for the project’s blog immediately afterward, so this was my chance to follow suit.

Konik ponies at Wicken Fen in a thoroughly nature-culture hybrid environment. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Konik ponies at Wicken Fen in a thoroughly nature-culture hybrid environment. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

During the workshop, I posted about the grazing animals being used to “rewild” Wicken Fen and questioned their “wildness”. My concern is not with the use of ponies or cattle to manage vegetation at Wicken Fen, it is about the labels that we use for the activity. What are we really doing when we introduce grazing breeds selectively bred by humans into fenced enclosures in areas where free-range grazers haven’t lived for 10,000 years? My position is that this kind of intervention is environmental management. The managers at Wicken Fen have adopted a goal of what the ecosystem should be and have chosen species to place in the area to achieve that goal. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that — in fact, I applaud it — but is it “rewilding”?

Of course the answer to that depends on what you mean by “rewilding”. That is where in the podcast, I go a little bit into the paper that I presented at the conference. I’m currently reworking/expanding the paper for consideration in a Geoforum special issue, so I won’t steal all its thunder here, but in essence, it argues that the definition of “rewilding” is anything but clear.

When the word was first coined in 1991 (that’s the first use I’ve been able to locate), it meant creating landscapes focused on the 3 Cs (cores, corridors & carnivores). In other words, it was all about large wildlife, particularly carnivores like wolves and bears, and it was developed within a US context. In 2005, the word was repurposed by Donlan et al. in their famous Nature paper “Re-wilding North America” to mean the return of megafaunal replacements for animals lost at the end of the Pleistocene from North America (think here of mammoths, cave lions, and the like). A later group of scientists working on introducing surrogate tortoise species from one Oceanic island to another started labelling their work as “rewilding”. Still others used “rewilding” to refer to the abandonment of previous agricultural land or production forest, particularly within the European context. And finally “rewilding” is even used to refer to the release of captive-born animals into the wild.

What I found interesting in all of this is how geography mattered in which definition we were talking about. In North America, the focus was on species. In Europe, animals were not discussed, it was landscapes. In the North American contexts, “rewilding” implied not having humans present, whereas that was not the case in other geographies, although even in the other geographies, “rewilding” was using a baseline before human settlement even if it wasn’t assumed that humans would be gone from the area now.

In the paper, I critiqued this notion of “wild” being only where humans are not. Bill Cronon argued back in 1995 that making wilderness out to be nature profoundly apart from humans is fundamentally flawed. It’s not that setting aside nature reserves is inappropriate, but as he said a few days ago on NPR’s Science Friday, there is “no way we can wall off those areas” so nothing is really without human influence. From this contention, I argued that making “wild” out to be only places without people leads to devaluing wild where people are, whether that’s a butterfly in the garden or a sparrow in an agricultural field. Paul Robbins, who was on Science Friday along with Cronon, pointed out that working landscapes can be incredibly productive from a biodiversity perspective. So if “rewilding” focuses only on things “out there”, we diminish the thing “right here”. We imply that if touched by human hands, something can’t be wild.

When I drafted my talk, that’s where it finished. But I got inspired to add a multi-media ending to the paper when I was sitting on a bench outside of our room during the break before my paper. I noticed how many bird calls I could hear, so I filmed the urban “wild”.

Now, Paul Warde in his blog post didn’t agree that this garden scene is “wild” but I beg to differ because I focus on a different aspect of wild. On the Science Friday radio show, Cronon mentioned the difference between controlling nature and affecting nature. Although in the Anthropocene everything is affected by humans, we do not control it all. As Emma Marris has labelled it, we live in a rambunctious garden. And it is that rambunctiousness that I believe is “wild”. A recent write-up about the wildlife in New York’s Central Park is a case in point. The inhabitants of Central Park are uncontrolled yet affected by us — they are wild.

Again, I’m not saying that we don’t need to work on making landscape areas in which non-humans can live. We do. Some non-humans are very sensitive to human contact so they need spaces away from us; but others actually thrive where we are. Both are important and both are wild. In that way, rewilding seems like a ridiculous term because if it’s all already wild, you can’t “re”wild it. We can as humans, however, choose to make spaces for different kinds of wild in the world.

Reintroduction as restoration

I recently published an article titled “Ecological restoration in the Convention on Biological Diversity targets” in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation. The article looks at how ecological restoration has been built into the Convention on Biological Diversity (referred to as CBD) targets for 2020. One of the targets establishes a numerical goal of “restoration of at least 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems.” In the article, I discuss the problems of setting up such a quantitative goal when what you mean by “restoration” and “degraded ecosystems” haven’t even been defined.

One of the issues I bring up in the article is how reintroduction projects should count, if at all, toward the CBD restoration goal. If a single species reintroduction does count, how would it be measured? By the areal extent of the species’ range? Obviously in terms of biodiversity, which is after all what CBD is supposed to be about, bringing a species back to its former range is positive. But is it a restoration of an ecosystem?

I suppose the answer depends on which species we are talking about and what actions go along with the reintroduction. Some species have a dramatic effect on other species populations which can cause cascading effects through the whole ecosystem. I’m thinking here of the wolf reintroductions in the western US which have been shown to have wide ranging effects. In that case, brining back one species may be the missing piece that can create a more healthy ecosystem.

Large blue butterfly. Photo by PJC&Co from Wikimedia Commons.

Large blue butterfly. Photo by PJC&Co from Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes it is also necessary to do restoration of a landscape before a species can be reintroduced. For example, a project to reintroduce large blue butterflies (Maculinea arion) in the UK has required significant investment in meadow re-creation and management in order to promote the colonies of ants (the specific and finicky ant species Myrmica sabuleti) which the butterfly feeds on during the larval stage. In that project, restoring the habitat had to come along with restoring the species.

Lots of other reintroduction projects, however, are aimed at conserving a particular species by reintroducing it into its former habitat with little or no habitat modification. In other words, the projects focus on species, not on ecosystems. It is often unclear in the project summaries I’ve read to really determine the extent to which the reintroduced species “restore” the ecosystem as a whole, even though they clearly modify it by now being in the food chain.

This got me thinking about my historical reintroduction cases. Are they really ecosystem restoration? Beavers are known ecosystem engineers. They physically modify the landscape with canals and tunnels and dams, raising the water level is some areas and lowering it in others. Bringing the beavers back to Sweden in the 1920s and 30s restored an important component of stream and wetland ecosystems.

The Norwegian muskox on the other hand are not drastic ecosystem modifiers. In fact, that’s the reason that modern scientists haven’t called for their extermination even though they are listed on the Norwegian Black List of invasive species — although the scientists consider them non-native, they don’t cause any real harm either. Sure, they eat some mosses and grasses, but the overall effect, at least at the population levels they have now, is minimal. One could argue that the muskox are a component of a tundra ecosystem, so their presence is one step toward tundra restoration (at least if we’re thinking about an ecosystem from 10.000 years ago), but whether or not anything has been significantly restored at this point is pretty questionable.

The relationship then between reintroduction and restoration is one worth continued investigation. They are both “re” words, implying a bringing back, but they may not often bring back the same thing.


Reintroduction & de-extinction

I have a short Viewpoint piece out in this month’s Bioscience about the potential link between reintroduction (bringing a species back to an area where it was formerly) and de-extinction (bringing a species back to life through fancy genetic means after it has been declared extinct). I suggest that reintroduction experience and standards should be a guide for de-extinction projects that attempt to bring back formerly extinct species.

Now I want to make it perfectly clear that the article does not say we should be going around de-extincting species. What it says is that we will be – and that’s not entirely the same thing. I think, like animal cloning, that this will take off as a scholarly pursuit, whether or not it is the right thing to do. I mention in the paper that humanities scholars in particular need to be mobilised in discussions about whether or not a species should be brought back. Philosophers and historians should have important things to contribute in the debate, and so far, they have been relatively silent. There were no professional philosophers or historians represented at the TEDxDeExtinction event, for example. My article doesn’t go into the details what humanities scholars should be saying, although it does suggest that we need to learn from history–the history of reintroduction–before moving forward with de-extinction.

I think that if geneticists and molecular biologists go to all the trouble of re-creating a species (whether or not it is truly the same doesn’t actually matter), the plan should be to eventually have that species in the wild. And if that is the goal, then reintroduction is an appropriate guide. So my article talks about some of the guidance out there and how it might be useful.

The article also offers a few ‘words of wisdom’ about learning from past reintroduction experiences, focusing on potential conflicts that could arise. One example is the thylacine. Although scientists have argued that thylacines could not physically have killed sheep because of their jaw configuration, rural residents might still object to them coming back just as wolf reintroductions have met with resistance.

Pleistocene Park was established in Russia with the intent of restoring the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem.

Pleistocene Park was established in Russia with the intent of restoring the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem.

While everyone seems to be advocating rewilding these days, are average people really going to want to have mammoths wondering around the nearby woods? I envision that mammoths will be brought back through de-extinction techniques within the next 20 years and they’ll be put in subarctic national park type areas, like Pleistocene Park in Russia which was established in 1996 specifically with the intent of having mammoths there some day. When the mammoths stray too far out of bounds, they’ll have to be captured and taken back home or killed. Since this is precisely what is done currently with reintroduced animals like the muskox in Norway, it seems to me that those examples should be studied more closely.

If anything, I hope that the short piece provides some food for thought for the scientific community. Instead of always thinking a new technological development changes everything, it might be wiser to reflect on the ways that everything stays the same.

Page 2 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén