New scientific study identifies ambitious network of protected areas

Today, a group of prominent scientists—including the former Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—released a new scientific study “envisioning a bold and science-based rewilding of publicly owned federal lands in the American West.”

Their “rewilding call is grounded in ecological science and is necessary regardless of changing political winds. Our objective is to follow up on President Biden’s vision to conserve, connect, and restore by identifying a large reserve network in the American West suitable for rewilding two keystone species, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the North American beaver (Castor canadensis).”

Below is a press release conservation groups issued hailing the scientists’ western rewilding blueprint.

UPDATE: 30+ pages of supplemental material in support of the scientific study is also available here.

HAILEY, IDAHO—Conservationists today hailed a new scientific study that identifies an ambitious network of protected areas, with wolf and beaver restoration as a centerpiece, as a sound strategy for restoring native ecosystems and wildlife diversity on western public lands. The benefits of this proposal would contribute significantly to stream restoration and help mitigate drought, wildfires, and climate change. The study uses scientific modeling to identify  eleven large-scale reserves, then identified connectivity habitats to allow the dispersal of native species among the Western Rewilding Network.

“This scientific blueprint for large landscape conservation, and its focus on retiring public land livestock operations and restoring wolves and beavers is a major call to action for policymakers in Congress and the administration,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “The ecological success of Yellowstone National Park shows that this combination restores biodiversity, and replicating this success across the West is an enterprise well worth our collective efforts.”

Of the 92 threatened and endangered species encompassed by the proposed rewilding network, the scientists analyzed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service findings finding  that commercial uses of public lands were major contributors to species endangerment. Livestock grazing is the most common threat, imperiling 48% of the species, followed by mining (22%), logging (18%), and oil and gas drilling (11%).

“Rewilding can bring us real wolf recovery in the West – it’s no longer a pipe dream,” said Kristen Boyles, managing attorney at Earthjustice. “Climate change adds even more stress to wild places, and scientific visions like this show us a path toward rebuilding our natural heritage.”

Changing the management in the proposed reserve network will enable restoration of  these essential ecosystems including, importantly, drought mitigation. Specifically, the recommendations call for retiring  livestock grazing allotments, and restoring gray wolf and beaver populations.

“History has shown us that, over time, rewilding efforts, protection, and restraint can restore wounded landscapes,” said Maggie Howell, Executive Director of Wolf Conservation Center. “Letting beavers and wolves do their essential work is an effective way to unleash nature’s self-healing powers to reestablish vital ecological processes and make the land and its creatures resilient in a time of climatological stress.”

The study cites the restoration of streams and riparian systems, amelioration of altered fire regimes, and climate mitigation through increased carbon storage as collateral benefits of implementing the reserve design and its recommended protections. Aspen woodlands, which support an elevated diversity of native species – but are presently in decline – would be a key beneficiary of the plan.

“This study makes it crystal clear that it’s time to fully invite nature back to America’s public lands,” said Randi Spivak, Public Lands Program Director for the Center for Biological Diversity.  “If we are to succeed in conserving 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030, the recommendations by these authors are necessary steps to saving life on earth”

The paper’s authors justified the prescription of significant changes in land and wildlife management in the reserves because “we believe that ultra ambitious action is required.” They cited drought, changing temperatures, massive fires, and biodiversity loss as key ecological crises facing western ecosystems.

The scientists consider this network a natural complement to a Sagebrush Sea conservation proposal, and found that the two networks, if fully implemented, could protect a combined 22% of western states. If strongly protected, these lands could be counted toward the 30% by 2030 goal articulated by the Biden administration under their ‘America the Beautiful’ initiative.

“This paper is a roadmap for the Biden administration to turn aspirational words about protecting 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030 into meaningful action,” said Sarah McMillan, Senior Adviser at WildEarth Guardians. “The colliding extinction crisis and the climate emergency demand bold action. With logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, and livestock grazing remaining a significant threat to federal public lands, we must stop this endless resource exploitation and start conserving, reconnecting, and restoring at a landscape scale. The ecological and economic benefits of the rewilding plan presented in this paper would be significant, and would accumulate over time, as riparian areas, clean water, and biodiversity are restored and climate change is mitigated through increased carbon storage.”

26 thoughts on “New scientific study identifies ambitious network of protected areas”

  1. One could always point out that this is not a “scientific study” it’s the journal equivalent of an opinion article, and further take a look at the authors. Many qualified individuals no doubt, but no doubt that the stance and agendas advanced by a number of these individuals are equally clear. This gets pointed out for PERC so why not here? May as well.

    Dellasalla, Earth Island Institute, Wuerthner and Public Lands Media, and the Turner Endangered Species fund. Credentialed? sure, absolutely. Equally sure to have an agenda. Noting that this question is often pointed out for posts featuring articles from, say, PERC, why not point it our here? Only pointing it out, of course. What’s a land manager to do when motivated, partial reasoning rules the day?

    What’s interesting about this, of course, is that it’s offered in support of an already political agenda (America the Beautiful) and is not itself any kind of scientific finding. The conclusion overreaches the data, if it’s construed as an independent finding of the field. The study itself is more careful than the press release in couching it, as the conclusion states that if you want to implement this initiative, you should do x y and z.

    The claim that this is a “scientific study showing x” is indicative of the penchant for claiming to have some value judgement informed by the unassailable authority of science, but what you actually have is the opinion of some scientists. Which may be worthwhile. But it isn’t “science showing x.” The rhetorical difference is meaningful.

      • Yes! That doesn’t make it a finding of science that you should implement. You may misconstrue my point but i’ll ignore the snark. The point is not that the study itself doesn’t adequately couch its findings, it clearly does. As above: that if you want to implement this initiative, you should do x y and z, and it offers support of that. I’m not saying that they’re wrong that this is a way to implement the initiative, it almost certainly is.

        Rather, a larger point going on at a higher or more abstract level, namely that “science” doesn’t “show” that this needs to happen unless you make certain prior value judgements and that the demonstrated agenda of certain prominent individuals and organizations in the credits should be taken into account. Like I said, if it gets pointed out for PERC, then it’s fair game here too. And what does that mean for the land manager consuming this media? Not sure myself. One tack that could be taken: if rewilding isn’t taken to be the best use of public lands nor consonant with the legal framework around public lands, then the question is raised about whether or not the approach recommended in the paper remains useful.

  2. I agree with Anonymous.. because scientists say something, that doesn’t make what they say “science”.
    “History has shown us that, over time, rewilding efforts, protection, and restraint can restore wounded landscapes,” said Maggie Howell, Executive Director of Wolf Conservation Center. “Letting beavers and wolves do their essential work is an effective way to unleash nature’s self-healing powers to reestablish vital ecological processes and make the land and its creatures resilient in a time of climatological stress.”

    It seems to be form of mysticism coupled with wolf-olatry. In my discipline, we tend to think of critters and plants on the landscape as assemblages of species based on histories, random factors, genetics, and so on. That’s a view of many scientists within my discipline. That doesn’t make it “science” any more than “without people is best”, just because that’s the view of (some) ecosystem scientists. Wolf-olatry doesn’t sound like science to me.

    As for me I’d be for re-Indigenizing federal lands, that would be Indigenous people get to pick how they’re managed.

    And if I can speak for the ponderosa pine species (as an expert in pine evolution)… they will be resilient or not (as they have been since glaciation) regardless of how many, or if, wolves are around.

  3. Classic Smokey Wire routine… A conservationist shares all the hard work in the environmental community that’s incredibly meaningful and inspiring and all the usual characters on here, especially the coward who’s too scared to use their real name and goes by “anonymous” all pile on to essentially argue that wildlife and ecosystems of the past no longer matter and maximization of exploitation and its consequent destruction is actually the highest moral virtue and the only thing that is “feasible.” So whatever it takes to discredit every aspect of our conservation efforts that seek to protect our planet’s living systems is what matters most to Smokey Wire folks.

    Another excellent example of how out of touch with reality former employees of federal land management really are. It’s precisely why we need to disband the USFS and BLM and put US Fish & WIldlife in charge of our public land. Until that happens all these brain-dead objections form their failed institutions will constantly undermine ecological restoration efforts.

    • Deane- I think you’re missing my point, can’t speak for anyone else.
      Do I think “wildlife and ecosystems of the past no longer matter?” Of course they matter. So do the current wildlife and assemblages of biota (see what I did there, it’s not a “system”). You have your preferences how how you want things, I have mine. They can be both biophysical “I want wolves in my county” or political “I think Indigenous people should decide.” Whatever they are, they are not scientific. Our preferences are based on our own experiences and values.

      As to high moral virtues, I tend not to moralize as, in my experience, it tends to add more heat than light to discussions.

    • Sooooo, because of the former Agency employees……. we should…….. ummmmm……….. “…disband the USFS and BLM…”??

      I still think we should focus on site-specific conditions, instead of spiritual desperation, the eco-version of “hopes and prayers”.

  4. Anonymous hit the nail on the head. And this is precisely why everything around COVID became so controversial and toxic. Most Americans don’t want to live in a technocracy and react badly to being told “The Science (TM)” says we should do something so we should just listen to the experts and do what we’re told. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. It can tell us how nature works and even give advise on how to achieve a certain result if that result is considered politically desirable. But science cannot make value judgments or determine policy. We live in a democracy, and making political decisions is the job of the elected representatives of the people, not a bunch of scientists who have never been elected to anything yet somehow feel they are entitled to make decisions for the rest of us.

    In this case of this so-called study, this is not science whatsoever. It’s simply using science to rationalize a political agenda. Whether that agenda is something that is desirable to pursue and whether it is prudent policy to manage public lands to prioritize wildlife habitat over things like food and energy production is a purely a political question that is up to our political representatives (and administrative officials they delegate to) to decide. If the politicians decide they want to create these massive wildlife corridors and value wildlife protection over all other interests like food and energy production, then these scientists can advise them on how to do that. But these scientists are no more qualified to make value and policy judgements than anyone else.

    Possibly less actually, because they are so myopically focused on their specific field (wildlife biology) that they ignore all other competing interests in society, which it is the job of our political representatives to consider. Things like food security, energy independence, national security, outdoor recreation, and the economic effects of different policies are all factors politicians have to weigh and balance in addition to wildlife interests.

    COVID already showed us all what happens when you give a bunch of scientists from one specific field unlimited authority to rule the country. For a brief time our society was completely oriented around preventing the spread of a single disease, and we sacrificed our economy, children’s education, and even healthcare for all other diseases to do it. A lot of people suffered as a result. I don’t think the result would be any better if we turned over management of our public lands to a bunch of activist wildlife scientists.

    Incidentally, I also disagree with Sharon here. I strongly oppose turning control of public lands over to indigenous groups as well. American public lands belong to all Americans, not just particular ethnic groups whose ancestors happened to live in a particular area hundreds of years ago. Present day Indian tribes have no greater stake in these lands than any other American, and to give control of lands which are the common heritage of the entire American people to one particular unelected group solely because of their ethnicity strikes me as anti-democratic and wrong.

  5. Della Sala, Ripple, Law, Ross, Wuerthner, etc. These people might have scientific credentials, but this statement is pure politics with a misleading veneer of science — NOT actual science. My thought is that it would be embarrassing and demeaning to associate actual research with these activists, moving forward. I agree completely with Patrick McKay’s sentiments in those regards.

    Look who is promoting this proposal — highly successful “nonprofit” organizations that have made hundreds of millions of dollars at taxpayer expense over the past 30 years. My thoughts regarding racial (whether human or other animals) distributions of our mismanaged federal lands have not changed since the 1980 “privatization” movement — I think title should be given to counties and states in which these properties exist and managed locally, and maybe with some retained public access rights. Assigning ownership based on distant genetics or a political agenda won’t work for lots of good practical and ethical reasons. I do think the Tribes — largely by being local — would be much better managers, though, than currently practiced by career bureaucrats and lawyers.

    • I agree with Bob that assigning ownership based on Tribal affiliations might not work, but that they would likely be better managers due to local knowledge and experiences. Otherwise the decisions seem to be made by Unknown Rich People on ENGO Boards -from Elsewhere.

  6. Lots of fringeworthy comments here – Smokey Wire just took a downgrade. If you accept that federal lands are for everyone, then “local knowledge and experiences” are only one source of information. In my mind, ignorant people challenging medical science is much more dangerous than when they challenge forest management science, and arguing that covid restrictions that saved hundreds of thousands of lives may have also hurt some people is pointless. Then there is the assertion that native tribes’ longstanding spiritual connection to the land should be disregarded; I wish the reasoning that spirituality doesn’t count had been applied to abortion.

    • Jon, I think we might disagree about appropriate Covid and abortion policies both the actual policies, and where decisions about them should properly be made. Not sure what that has to do with the issue at hand.
      I didn’t say spiritual connections should be disregarded?? If we gave all the (federal land) back to the original owners, as I suggested, then it wouldn’t be any of our business to regard it or not. As to The Smokey Wire taking a downgrade because diverse opinions are expressed, well, I guess so be it.

    • Not sure I get what you’re saying. We should make public lands policy based on Indians’ religious beliefs, but not other policies? Last I heard, the First Amendment was supposed to prevent favoring one religion over another. So why should indigenous peoples’ “spiritual connection” to public lands count more than say (to use Utah as an example), the Mormons’ “spiritual connection” to the same land? Indians are certainly not the only people in America who can claim to have a spiritual connection to western lands, nor are they the only ones with religious beliefs about land use ethics.

      And of course, why should environmentalist’s beliefs, which many have noted are often more religious in nature than scientific, trump everyone else’s beliefs?

      • My specific objection was to your statement that, “Present day Indian tribes have no greater stake in these lands than any other American.” The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA) (42 U.S.C. § 1996.) protects the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

        • Oh ok. Sure I’ll grant they have religious connections to the land, and it’s good the law protects their right to practice their religion. However their religious beliefs do not give them right to dictate the management of those lands for other uses. That’s what I have a problem with, because that would be basing federal land management policy on one particular religion and favoring it over other religions.

  7. Re. “Indigenous people should have the right to pick how the federal lands are managed.” Not sure exactly what “pick” means here; but it sounds like supremacy over all other choices. In that sense, who gets to be “indigenouos”? Note that Tribes choose the qualifications for membership. Some require at least 1/32nd indigenous ancestry. (I remember meeting a Tribal member with red hair and blue eyes.) — Tribal members have dual citizenship – are citizens of the USA as well of their sovereign Tribal nation. That comes with dual rights and also dual responsibilities to other citizens. — Yes, there is much to regret about our early contact, history. However, using it in a biased attempt to find heroes and villians is misleading and disingenuous. We need to learn from the successes and the mistakes of the past, and try, all of us, to do better by each other, all of us. — Re “political” decisions, note for one that the federal Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 is a congressional mandate that the Refuges be managed for “the general American public”.

    • Exactly. As soon as you start giving special privileges to people of a particular race or ethnicity, you’re bound to run into all kinds of thorny definitional issues. Once you start justifying racial discrimination for anything, even with the goal of atoning for past discrimination, you’re on very dangerous ground.

      • Native American laws and treaties are not based on race or ethnicity; they are based on the history of sovereignty and conquest. (Part of sovereignty is the authority to decide who is a member.)

        • Some of the discussion (any court decisions?) of treaty rights have proposed that they should be interpreted according to what the “signing” Tribes understood the treaties to mean. It can be pretty ambiguous. Now, are you suggesting that the representatives of the USA government understood that one day many of the Tribes would be populated with very many people having a minority of Tribal ancestry? And, I believe I repeat, what responsibilities of USA citizenship come along with USA citizenship rights? The path of the “Land Back” and similar movements is simply divisive, not what the treaty right envisioned. JABailey

        • So what about areas where historically it has been shown/known from Tribes themselves, that they fought other bands/tribes, killed and conquered or dispersed them? Do we then drill down to who was there before another tribe came in and took over?

          To be clear, I’m not being an apologist for what happened during colonial expansion and westward expansion/mining/ranching etc. Simply pointing out that “sovereignty and conquest” is a sticky fact, especially if you ask an anthropologist or such.

          More importantly, I’m not sure where this idea comes from that Native Tribes will be some kind of hands off, entirely preservationist type approach. Many, many tribes financially benefit from logging and other activities on their land, including intensive forestry, even salvage logging. Not to mention casino prevalence.

        • Umm, membership in native tribes is very much based on race or ethnicity. Yes their right to choose their membership is founded in sovereignty, but it is very much based on race. That’s all well and good if we’re talking about reservations, which are indeed their sovereign land so they can do what they want with them. It’s not ok when we’re talking about giving them special privileges to control the management of federal lands which are held in trust for all Americans, not just the tribes. Unless actually mandated by a treaty (it’s not as far as I’m aware) that’s just straight up racial discrimination.

          • I’d have to check some of the treaties again, but some treaties in this part of the world gave Tribes the right to hunt, fish, gather and graze their stock on all “undeveloped” or “unoccupied” ? (The exact word, I need to check.) lands within their historic “use area. In practice that I have seen, these lands have been construed to be BLM and, especially, Forest Service lands. Refuges, Parks and military lands have been off limits. It seems the right has been used mostly for hunting and, especially in salmon country, fishing. It would be awfully interesting if some Tribal member showed up with livestock on some ranchers BLM allotment! Jim

          • You changed the question. I said that laws and treaties are not based on race. Tribal membership is what they want it to be. Tribes do have treaty rights to specified activities on “unoccupied” or “unclaimed” lands (or other treaty terminology, which I understand also references which lands). The Supreme Court recently discussed hunting rights in the Herrera case (noted here:

            • Not really. I wasn’t talking about treaty rights. I don’t care if the tribes have special privileges to hunt, fish, etc. under treaties. I agree that is not discriminatory.

              What I’m concerned with is giving them the right to make management decisions for those lands regarding other people’s usage of that land. Giving particular ethnic groups the right to prevent other Americans from using our public lands (for energy production, recreation, livestock grazing, etc) is discriminatory and has nothing to do with treaty rights. No treaty I’ve ever heard requires that. Typically that is proposed as a form of reparations, trying to use present discriminate to atone for past discrimination. That is wrong.


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