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Scientists lead charge to restore gray wolf and beaver populations in West

Bringing back gray wolves and beavers could be key to offsetting the effects of climate change. But not everyone agrees doing so is the end all, be all solution.

(CN) — It is something of a conservationist dream to “rewild” or restore ecosystems so native plant and animal species can coexist with modern civilization while offsetting the effects of human-made climate change. But for one team of scientists, this dream is actually feasible and may become a reality. The question is, how realistic is rewilding for the near future?

A team of 20 scientists has published an analysis identifying 11 federally owned reserves in the U.S. West for wolf and beaver restoration, a process that could improve degraded land and save 92 threatened and endangered species.

In “Rewilding the American West,” the team suggests restoring gray wolves and North American beavers to historic territories benefits broader ecosystems because their presence balances natural resources for nearby plant and animal species. For instance, the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park is said to have kept deer populations in check, giving native plants a reprieve from the insatiable grazers.

Meanwhile, the benefits of restoring beaver populations are abundant, especially for protecting endangered species like salmon.

“Beavers are an excellent restoration tool for organizations and agencies with the goal of preserving fish populations and improving salmonid habitat,” said assistant furbearer biologist Shawn Behling of the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “In-stream beaver structures provide barriers to reduce water velocity. These structures provide hiding spaces for young salmon to avoid predation and reduced water velocity makes it easier for salmon to expend less energy as they move through the water while also allowing gill-clogging sediment to settle out.”

Even more important than in-stream structures, Behling said, are how beavers improve terrestrial buffers on either side of a stream. “Beaver dams and the resulting ponds recharge groundwater stores, giving stream-side vegetation a consistent water supply. After beavers colonize an area, the woody vegetation flourishes. And while beavers consume some of this woody material, these trees and shrubs grow and reproduce at a rate that outpaces the beavers’ need.

“Soon, exposed stream water — which may have been too warm for salmon before — are now shaded by trees,” Behling added. “Banks are stabilized to prevent sediment from being washed away or entering the water column, and vegetation offers habitat [that] invertebrates’ young salmon depend on for nutrition.”

The analysis is ripe for consideration by the Biden administration, which rolled out its Make America Beautiful Plan in January 2021 in hopes of conserving 30% of U.S. land by 2030.

“I got this idea for rewilding at that point,” said lead author William Ripple, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University. Ironically, beavers are the mascot of OSU and the state animal, but according to Ripple, his idea for the analysis is based on his history of conservation work — some of which took place at Yellowstone.

Based on his experience, Ripple believes rewilding federal lands will help aid 92 threatened and endangered species from owls and big cats to smaller reptiles, insects and plants. But there is one contentious part of the plan that could get in the way.

To access federal lands throughout the West, some livestock grazing, mining, logging, and oil and gas drilling would need to go. According to the study, reserves with the greatest number of vulnerable species are used for these four practices, particularly livestock grazing. In many areas, livestock grazing causes stream and wetland degradation, affects fire regimes and inhibits the regeneration of wood species.

Additionally, the study authors noted ruminant livestock are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, and how their effects on the ecosystem may exacerbate dry climate conditions, “potentially shifting landscapes from carbon sinks to carbon sources.”

“In general, rewilding will be most effective when participation concerns for all stakeholders are considered,” the study authors wrote, including ranchers, hunters and fishers, local communities, private landowners and Indigenous communities. But whether everyone in 11 states can get on board with rewilding these lands is debatable.

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In Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, gray wolves are not listed as endangered and are hunted more liberally than those in Oregon and Washington state, which are only killed when nonlethal deterrents to livestock prove unsuccessful.

“It's our philosophy that we want to minimize the lethal removal of wolves as much as possible,” said wolf policy lead Julia Smith of the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It doesn't mean that we have not removed wolves in response to wolf-livestock that conflict, because of course we have, but we try to keep that number as absolutely minimal as possible, and I believe that the state has done so.”

Even so, populations of gray wolves in the West are minute compared to historic levels, Ripple and his team wrote. “Once likely numbering in the tens of thousands, there may be as few as approximately 3,500 wolves in the American West today.”

But there’s also the question of whether gray wolves help the environment as much as conservationists say they do.

“When we talk about wolves and, ‘oh, they improve ecosystems,’ that honestly to me is too broad a statement,” said Smith, who has dedicated nine years of her career to wolf restoration throughout the West. “To answer the question scientifically and objectively, it would need to be asked with a measurable answer and then you would need to design scientific methods and treatments that would provide evidence for causation and not correlation.

“So, I would say probably no,” Smith said. “But it doesn't mean that they aren't having ecosystem effects. I think wolves are an incredible critter and native wildlife species to our nation, and we should work on their recovery. But when people think that restoring wolves in ecosystem is somehow going to have all these fascinating effects, I don't know that we necessarily have the scientific evidence to back that up.”

As of now, Ripple has no plans to introduce the analysis to the White House. But he’s hopeful it will generate more conversations on how wildlife restoration can offset the effects of climate change.

“I think the goal here is to educate other scientists and the public and policymakers of a possibility of a long-range plan that might really help the western environment,” he said. “And it will be up to the public and conservation organizations and other stakeholders to make this happen. So, I'm happy to present it to the elected officials, but I'm not sure how that works.”

However, Ripple noted organizations have already approached him with the intent pursuing the analysis as policy. One of such is the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit dedicated to the legal protections of endangered wildlife.

“We are looking at the findings of the paper and evaluating the best ways to use them,” the center's senior wolf advocate Amaroq Weiss said in an email. “For instance, the paper could help elected federal officials understand why any wolf delisting bills introduced to Congress don’t make sense ecologically and are in contravention of goals of the Biden administration and conservation orgs to set aside at least 30% of the U.S. landmass for wildlife by 2030.”

Additionally, Weiss said the center plans to use the paper’s maps and finding to educate policy makers and agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service on how wildlife restoration tempers the effects of climate change – Just as Ripple had hoped.

The good news is that whether the study makes it to Congress or not, gray wolf populations are making a comeback.  

“That's already occurring in every single state that they show except for Utah,” said Smith. “For Washington, they are protected and are expanding. Oregon, they're protected and are expanding. California, they're protected and expanding."

Washington’s beaver populations are also going to be OK, according to Behling of the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Beaver population numbers are, in our estimation, thriving and increasing,” Behling said. “However, beaver populations Washington state are difficult to quantify. We are currently working with Washington State University to develop new methods of quantifying beaver numbers in the landscape using eDNA sampling, where water samples are analyzed for individuals of each species within a watershed.  We hope to be able to use this new methodology to make more precise estimations of beaver populations in the state in the coming years.”

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