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Friday, October 22, 2021

Column: Bring back the mammoths

Forty years ago, geoscientist Paul Martin came up with a beautiful idea. Martin studied how environments in North America changed through the millennia and he settled on an insane-sounding proposal: Bring back the wooly mammoth.

Well, not the mammoth, exactly. Those guys are extinct. But at least bring some elephants to North America to fill the ecological niches left when mammoths died out.

Martin realized that current North American species are just a skeleton crew. Sure, we have cougars and bison, but many large invertebrates that lived here just 11,000 years ago are missing. North America used to house camels, lions, mammoths, cheetahs, sloths and giant beavers – the stuff of safaris and sci-fi.

Martin argued that we could introduce animals like African elephants in the United States as substitutes for extinct species, a process he called “rewilding.”

Before you start thinking “I don’t want no cheetah in my backyard,” let me explain why we should follow Martin’s advice.

Human were partly responsible for extinctions.

About 11,000 years ago, the Earth reached the end of what is called the “Pleistocene epoch.” In North America, most of the large vertebrates that had survived for millions of years vanished.

And no one knows quite why.

“There are four theories out there,” said Larry Agenbroad, director of The Mammoth Site, a fossil dig in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The climate-change theory proposes that when the climate warmed after the ice age, there was massive drought and animals starved. The hyperdisease theory proposes a massive plague. Then there’s the comet-impact theory (picture “Deep Impact”).

Agenbroad doesn’t believe these theories. There’s zero evidence of a hyperdisease, and he wonders how a comet impact could have killed off just select vertebrates. Instead, Agenbroad bets overkill nudged mammoths toward extinction. Overkill happened when early humans decided mammoths, and other large animals, looked delicious.

“There are at least a dozen genuine mammoths kill sites in North America,” Agenbroad said.

Rewilding could save endangered predators.

Forget Mufasa, the extinct American lion was the largest lion in history. When large herbivores died off, the American lions starved. The big cats alive in North America today are like the puma – smaller, solitary cats.

The fate of the puma is a perfect example of how the food chain fails when large prey animals go extinct. Because habitat destruction has made large game relatively scarce in North America, pumas are spread thin across huge territories.

Just last week, Fish and Wildlife Service officials confirmed extinction of the Eastern cougar, a puma subspecies that used to thrive from the southern tip of Canada to the northern tip of South America. Eastern cougars were doomed without enough prey animals around. If we re-introduced herbivores like camels, perhaps the Eastern cougar would have held on longer.

But it’s not too late for everyone. Today, the Florida panther is barely making ends meet, maybe they’d do better with a little camel flesh.

Rewilding helps herbivores too.

In a 2008 article for Scientific American, conservation scientist C. Josh Donlan proposed rewilding as a way to give endangered herbivores access to new habitats.

He wrote that endangered wild horses and asses would be good substitutes for the prey animals of the late Pleistocene.

“Because most of the Eurasian and African species are now critically endangered, establishing Asian asses and Przewalski’s horse in North America might help prevent the extinction of these animals,” Donlan wrote.

I want to see elephants.

I really, really do.

And hopefully I’m not the only member of the public who wants to see large animals in the U.S.

Donlan proposed marketing wildlife reserves to tourists as a way to pay for the rewilding effort. He believed fenced-in, private ranches would be the perfect places to test out rewilding programs.

“Private reserves in southern Africa where lions and other large animals have been successfully reintroduced offer a model – and these reserves are smaller than some private ranches in the [American] southwest,” Donlan wrote.

But I don’t think we should stop after a few reserves. Really, what would be cooler than lions in the Arboretum?

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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