Ah, To See the Cheetah Roam

A few years ago I wrote a letter to the Pinedale Roundup (of Wyoming) and the local Game & Fish suggesting that as a way to make the drive from Pinedale to Laramie more interesting, they should introduce cheetahs to the mesas. The drive is 4 hours long, dry, dusty, rocky, and flat; in otherwords, it's pretty boring. Watching cheetahs zip around after the antelope would really spice things up. I was of course trying to be humorous. However, it turns out it may not be a bad idea.

A group of scientists have written a commentary in the journal Nature proposing this very idea, only on a grander scale. The authors' point out that North America used to be populated with a number of large mammals during the Pleistocene, roughly 13,000 years ago. Most were hunted to extinction. This includes the American cheetah, camels, and horses. In Africa, a number of species are also threatened with extinction in the coming century. As a way to increase their chances for survival, the authors propose placing them in the Great Plains region of the US. Not only camels, feral horses (from the Gobi), and the African cheetah, but also African/Asian elephants and the Bolson tortoise. The Great Plains are analogous to the ecosystems these species inhabit in Africa/Asia, and they could perform the same ecosystem functions here.

The authors recognize the considerable challenges facing such a proposal, most of them political and social. Ranchers won't be thrilled with this idea, nor are those ecologists who worry that relocation will fail and/or damage native species as has happened elsewhere (think of Australia or Hawaii). There is also the concern of disease transmission. They point out, however, the economic, ecological, social, and conservation benefits that could arise from taking such action. They say,

These issues must be addressed by sound research, prescient management plans and unbiased public discourse on a case-by-case and locality-by-locality basis. Well-designed, hypothesis-driven experiments will be needed to assess the impacts of potential introductions before releases take place.


The obstacles are substantial and the risks are not trivial, but we can no longer accept a hands-off approach to wilderness preservation. Instead, we want to reinvigorate wild places, as widely and rapidly as is prudently possible.

So, this isn't a half-assed suggestion. They've given it serious thought and recognize the challenges ahead, and there will be many. Personally, I like the idea. If our society can move in a direction that tries to live with the biosphere, rather than completely dominate it (which hasn't worked out very well so far) all of us will be better off. I look forward to the debate about this and seeing where it goes.

Donlan, J. et al. 2005. North American Re-wilding. Nature 436: 913-914.

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