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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest on efforts to reintroduce Grizzly bears back to the Lower 48?

-- J. Whitaker, silver Spring, MD

Grizzly bears, once a common sight in the Lower 48, were hunted and killed to near extinction over the century that followed colonialism. Today, these majestic, lumbering creatures are the focus of many restoration efforts in the United States.

Grizzlies are an important part of the ecosystems they typically inhabit. They aerate soils in the meadows where they dig, distribute plant seeds across the forest floor after eating fruits and nuts, and are a keystone species given their position at the top of the food chain—i.e., if Grizzly populations are suffering, so must be other wildlife populations in the region. In addition to their ecological importance, Grizzly bears also hold a great cultural value for many Native American tribes and Canadian First Nations.

Before colonizers came into the Americas from abroad, scientists think some 50,000 Grizzly bears lived between the Pacific coast and the Great Plains. According to the non-profit Western Wildlife Outreach, Grizzlies were eliminated from 98 percent of their original range in the contiguous U.S. between 1850 and 1970. Sport hunting, fur trading, farming, and the fact that until the mid-20th century, most of these bears would be shot on sight, nearly eradicating them entirely. Today, fewer than 1,400 Grizzlies remain in the Lower 48, most of them in and around Yellowstone National Park. Trace DNA evidence shows a small number (less than five) live in and around North Cascades National Park in Washington State.

All of these populations are seeing positive growth trends in recent years due to restoration efforts by environmental groups, indigenous activists and wildlife biologists. But it’s an uphill battle managing existing protected habitat for ideal Grizzly conditions while keeping livestock ranchers around the periphery of Yellowstone from unloading their rifles at their first sight of a Grizzly’s signature hump.

And like many other animal species, Grizzlies now face a new threat: climate change. Their populations have been migrating farther north, and have been encountering another competitor: Polar bears, which. have had viable offspring in areas where the two species have population overlap. Unfortunately, the rapid changes that are accompanying climate change will be difficult to overcome for even a Grizzly bear.

“There are only a couple Grizzly bear populations that are viable in the United States. Says Wendy Keefover from the Humane Society of the United States: “There are just these tiny islands of Grizzly bear populations left. They need far more protection, not less.”

Active work in restoration continues to be extremely important to American ecosystems for these cornerstone populations. To help with Grizzly bear restoration, visit the website of the Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear and add your name to their list of “Friends of the Grizzly” to receive updates on the campaign that has been pushing for more federal efforts to protect the iconic bears.

CONTACTS: Friends of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear, northcascadesgrizzly.org; NPCA’s “Support Grizzly Bear Recovery in the North Cascades,” npca.org/advocacy/53-support-grizzly-bear-recovery-in-the-north-cascades; Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s “Current status of threatened Grizzly bear populations and their recovery,” igbconline.org/conserving-grizzly-populations-2/; Western Wildlife Outreach’s “Grizzly Bear History,” westernwildlife.org/grizzly-bear-outreach-project/history/.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the “Field of Dreams” ecology restoration theory? -- Mary W., Austin, TX

The “Field of Dreams” hypothesis is a premise that restoration ecologists use to support arguments in favor of restoring plant diversity in that doing so will also lead to the return of wildlife. The hypothesis name comes from the 1989 film of the same name in which Kevin Costner heeds the “if you build it, they will come” call, building a ballfield in his cornfield which leads to all-stars from the ages showing up for an epic game. Conservationists would like to believe they can do similar things with land by reintroducing native plants so that animals will also return given the more hospitable surroundings.

“The Field of Dreams stems from the notion that all one needs is the physical structure for a particular ecosystem, and biotic composition and function will self-assemble...” reports Robert Hilderbrand of Brazil’s Laboratório de Ecologia e Restauração Florestal.

Restoring plant biodiversity is an important part of ecological restoration no matter what, but researchers have found time and again that animals returning is far from guaranteed, given the many factors at play that will dictate a different outcome from the original composition restorationists are trying to replicate.

“Restoration sites do become re-vegetated, but may be of different species composition and degree of cover,” says Hilderbrand. While revegetating a disturbed site is no doubt the best course of action if the goal is ecological restoration, expecting the same native wildlife species to return in similar numbers as before is unrealistic; more likely a new makeup of species will develop based on more recent influences.

Indeed, a recent study at Northern Illinois University (NIU) looking into best practices for restoring tallgrass prairie in the Midwest found that replanting alone is not enough to attract wildlife to return, thus debunking the Field of Dreams hypothesis. The researchers studied 17 plots of restored tallgrass prairie in the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, Illinois, measuring biodiversity in snakes, small mammals and ground and dung beetles in response to different management techniques.

They were surprised to learn that replanting alone was a poor indicator for future animal biodiversity. Much more effective ways to bring wildlife back included prescribed burns as well as the reintroduction of bison, a keystone species that affects everything else up and down the food chain. Overall, these “active” management strategies were some six times more effective at bringing back native snakes, small mammals and beetles than just reseeding and waiting for the wildlife to return.

“Seeding alone gets us started, but extra management super-charges the animal communities that are critical to maintaining healthy prairies," says Pete Guiden, a post-doctoral researcher at NIU and lead author on the study. Granted, replanting and tending a disturbed site will likely bring back a semblance of the former wildlife there if we have decades or longer to wait. But conservationists wanting to see results in our own lifetimes are better served augmenting such a strategy with more “active” restoration techniques.

CONTACTS: “Study challenges ecology's 'Field of Dreams' hypothesis,” sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210202164522.htm; “The Myths of Restoration Ecology,” lerf.eco.br/img/publicacoes/Hilderbrand%20et%20al_2005.pdf.

Dear EarthTalk: Should rivers be given the same legal rights as people in order to protect them? -- Phyllis T., New Haven, CT

“The river flows from the mountain to the sea. I am the river. The river is me.”
—Maori proverb from the Whanganui iwi (tribe)

Native groups, environmental organizations, local residents, and all those who rely on a river’s health know the importance of protecting them. One idea that has been proposed in order to address this is giving rivers the same legal rights as people in courts. This idea came to fruition because of the concept of ‘environmental personhood’ and its past applications on other non-human elements of nature.

Environmental personhood is a legal concept that endows different environmental entities with the same status as a person in court, and is being used by many groups to protect natural resources in the modern world. Indigenous groups have long recognized nature as a “subject with personhood deserving of protection and respect, rather than ... as a merchandise or commodity over which property rights should be exercised,” says Monti Aguirre of International Rivers. Because of this, many native groups have been at the forefront of global efforts to petition courts and governments for environmental personhood for rivers.

In New Zealand, the Te Awa Tupua River on the North Island was given the status of legal personhood in 2017 after nine years of negotiations between the former New Zealand attorney general and the Whanganui iwi, or tribe, and other indigenous Maori groups. The law outlines that both the New Zealand court and the Whanganui iwi have joint guardianship over the river. This connects the river legally to the indigenous people who have depended upon and cared for it for over 700 years. The change has impacted both people’s behaviors in the ways that they treat the river and their individual perceptions of the river.

In 2019, Bangladesh became the first country to grant every one of its rivers environmental personhood. Meanwhile, California’s Yurok Tribe passed a resolution to declare legal personhood for the Klamath River, and a court in India’s Uttarakhand state bestowed the Ganges and Yamuna rivers with legal personhood, too.

One of the issues that arises in giving rivers similar rights as people, aside from its unpopularity with some local companies and agricultural plots, is the question of who takes responsibility. Suing groups for harming a river is costly and there has been much debate over who should cover the costs. In Ecuador, a number of green groups successfully sued a construction firm to stop it from building a road over the Vilcabamba River, but when the company continued with the project anyway, the groups were unable to afford a second case. Another issue is that some rivers extend across national borders.

These concerns have stirred doubts about the efficacy of environmental personhood in courts, but there’s no doubt that conversations arising because of the idea are changing the way they view the natural world. Granting rivers the legal rights of humans in court would create a more concrete foundation for the their protection and it would prompt conversation around the conservation of these veins of the Earth.

CONTACTS: “Should Rivers Have Same Legal Rights As Humans?,”
npr.org/2019/08/03/740604142/should-rivers-have-same-legal-rights-as-humans-a-growing-number-of-voices-say-ye; “The Klamath River now has the legal rights of a person,” hcn.org/issues/51.18/tribal-affairs-the-klamath-river-now-has-the-legal-rights-of-a-person; “A Voice for Nature,” nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/04/maori-river-in-new-zealand-is-a-legal-person/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://www.earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org  

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