“You’re asking a lot from the reintroduction people
when God himself won’t do it.”
—Overheard at the First International Wildlife Reintroduction Conference
At Carkeek Park, just north of Seattle, chum salmon broke the water, turning the shallow ripples of Piper’s Creek into a writhing mass of flesh and fins. They tore through the current, scooped out gravel beds with their tails, and sprayed eggs or milt. Along the banks, carcasses rotted in the tree roots, and at night raccoons came and picked at them.
It seemed timeless, natural, the cycle of life. But until a reintroduction in the 1980s, no salmon had migrated up this creek since 1927. Routing the stream through a culvert and logging the nearby trees caused the salmon to disappear. Some visitors hanging over the bridge railing to watch the migration remembered the empty stream. Some had released salmon fry as elementary-school students and returned three years later to meet up with the fish again.
This was the early ’90s and I was just out of college, trying to find my way in the world. Everything was possible. Nothing was possible. It was a recession, sodden fliers for grungy bands papered the sidewalk, and the low clouds inspired claustrophobia. But occasionally the sky opened to reveal far-off silvery mountains in every direction. It seemed equally likely that I would become a doctor, a river raft guide, or a barista at Starbucks, though I’d already applied and been rejected for that last position three times. I wanted to do something good, I knew that, but had no idea what that might mean.
Between temp jobs filing medical records, answering phones at KeyBank, and collating insurance reports, I went to watch the salmon. Sitka spruce and western red cedar along the steep ravines created a wilderness among city blocks and highways and the creek raced through. The water had been empty and now was full. An ecosystem ripped apart was slowly made whole. Reintroductions like this felt like what we should be doing with our human urge to meddle in natural affairs. Such a small intervention, it seemed, had set this in motion. The opening of a hand. For a long time those salmon, fighting their way back, were what I thought of when someone said “hope.”
“This boundary between resilience and adaptability.”
—Where the questions lie, according to Don Falk, editor of Foundations of Restoration Ecology
In October 1907, bison lumbered into trains at Fordham Station to make the trip back west. Remnants of the last herds, they had come to the Bronx Zoo to be preserved, but zoo director William T. Hornaday sent them back to form the nucleus of new families in their old home. Seven bulls and eight cows shifted in metal mesh crates as the train jerked to life. It was one of the earliest reintroduction efforts. A New York Times editorial, praising Hornaday, said the disappearance of this animal, “whose history is interwoven with the history of our westward course of empire, would be a National disgrace and calamity.”
The bison disembarked in Oklahoma’s Wichita National Forest, where they were met at the train station by the Comanche, doused in crude oil to keep off the ticks, and released into a fenced preserve. The ultimate success of the herd—a frisky calf, dubbed “Hornaday,” was born weeks after the release—offered a symbol to counteract the dominant image of bison in the late nineteenth century: mountains of bones.
“Conservation translocation is the intentional movement and release of a living organism where the primary objective is a conservation benefit: this will usually comprise improving the conservation status of the focal species locally or globally, and/or restoring natural ecosystem functions or processes.”
“Reintroduction is the intentional movement and release of an organism inside its indigenous range from which it has disappeared. Reintroduction aims to re-establish a viable population of the focal species within its indigenous range.”
—From IUCN’s Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations
When the door to their pen was left open, the first gray wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park wouldn’t leave. Captured in Canada, brought to Yellowstone by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and set loose in acre-sized enclosures in 1995, the animals were fearful. Impatient newspaper reporters took their revenge in headlines: “Wolves Refuse Call of the Wild” (Associated Press); “Test Wolves Shun Wilderness” (Vancouver Sun); “Canada’s Wolves Choose Captivity, Not Yellowstone” (Ottawa Citizen). Finally managers tore holes in the fencing to make the wolves think they had escaped. Hunks of deer meat helped lure them out, first one male, then the rest. Before long, the wolves preyed on bison and elk; aspen and willow, no longer over-browsed, flourished. More than a thousand newspapers carried the story, and I read many of them, planning to move to Montana to pursue a degree in environmental studies. The release was everything anyone could have hoped for.
In a class on international wildlife conservation, the professor, a pale man with a drooping, Old West mustache, went over case studies—elephant, tiger, leopard. The slides of hooked teeth and glossy fur over muscle flickered by, next to photos of bear gall bladders for sale in Chinese markets and bloody remains of poached rhinos. He’d never outright say it, but as he outlined the cultural, financial, and biological roadblocks to recovery, it was clear he thought they’d all soon be extinct. The social roadblocks were the worst. The press of human desire was just too much. Class over, he’d say, “Let’s go drink.” And we did. For a long time his pained smile was what I thought of when someone said “despair.”
Restoration. It’s a clunky word, made up of a bunch of prefixes and suffixes and roots.
The “re” that means “back to or toward the starting point,” “back to the original position,” or “implying the undoing of some previous action.”
The “store” that aims “to reinforce, provide for the continuance or improvement of (a stock, race, breed),” “to accumulate, hoard,” or “to deposit (goods, furniture, etc.) in a store or warehouse for temporary preservation or safe-keeping.”
And “ation,” a compound suffix that “forms nouns of action.”
Who likes a noun of action? I’d learned that when writing for a popular audience one is not supposed to use words like “restoration” or “ecosystem” or “biodiversity” because they’re too Latinate, too technical. But they are exactly what I mean. They are exactly what I want.
At the First International Wildlife Reintroduction conference at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, hundreds of scientists, managers, and graduate students crammed into the Great Hall, a glamorous room hung with chandeliers and lined with glowing wood, chatting about Arabian oryx captive breeding, and radio-tagging iguanas, and encouraging western gorilla reproduction. They were here to compare notes on putting animals back, despite climate change, despite the lack of knowledge about some species, despite the landscape shifting beneath them. They wanted to develop reintroduction into a science, rather than a haphazard series of releases. The failure rate of reintroduction is high, and under-reported.
Natalie was the daughter of a defender on my rec-league soccer team. Her place in Chicago was a stark square, bed half in the closet, cheap furniture except for a beautiful shower curtain covered with gold and pink and red paisleys that she bought with a graduation-present gift card. I took her out to dinner as thanks for letting me sleep on her couch.
Over pizza dripping with mozzarella, she asked about the conference. I told her I’d been thinking a lot about non-native species, that I was interested in the way people had built their world using plants and animals they wanted to see running wild in a new environment. And here we were, four hundred years later, rebuilding the world again, shot through with nostalgia for the US at an earlier age, suddenly valuing all these native species we’d dismissed. Once again we were constructing using biological tools, whether training captive-bred black-tailed prairie dogs to avoid predators or radio-tracking California condors. It’s this grand and shaky vision, I said. “So…we need to do that?” she asked.
“Long-term storage of semen would allow the reintroduction of genes of long-dead founders back into the captive population, reducing the rate of loss of genetic diversity.”
—From the Theriogenology journal article “Cryopreservation of Semen From Endangered Pheasants: The First Step Towards a Cryobank for Endangered Avian Species”
In North Carolina in the late 1980s, reintroduced red wolves bred with coyotes, diluting the gene pool of the young. Canadian lynx reintroduced to Colorado starved the first few years, unable to find enough food during early winter. In the Netherlands, a small-scale reintroduction effort brought back European river otters. But A8, a male, is fathering almost all of the young, trashing genetic diversity. As Hans Peter Koelewijn, one of the otter researchers, said, “The only thing I would pray for is that if there’s a car accident, it be A8.”
In Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, the entire Karori Sanctuary is ringed by a fence. Many of New Zealand’s restoration success stories have taken place on islands where predators can be kept at bay; at Karori, also called Zealandia, managers have created a mainland island using wire mesh. The fence is seven feet high to keep out cats, which jump, has a curve at the top to discourage opossums, which climb, and an underground metal skirt to thwart Norway rats, which dig. Behind its shield, the tuatara, an ancient reptile with spines down its back like a baby dragon and a “third eye” (or at least a light-sensing organ) in the middle of the head, goes about her leisurely reproduction; every two to four years, a female lays a clutch of eggs that will take a year to hatch. It’s as if she has all the time in the world.
The African wild dog, a creature that looks like a hybrid from myth—black-and-white spotted pony body; German shepherd head with shaggy, tawny fur; hyena ears, like dark satellite dishes—roams between fences in South Africa. Early reintroductions of wild dogs failed for many reasons: starved, killed by lions, killed by rabies, shot, poisoned. Like the dogs, many animals can’t be brought back to their original habitats, because the lands still carry the taint of whatever killed them in the first place. The barriers protect the wild dogs from poaching and illness brought by domestic dogs, and researchers have to keep moving individuals around to make sure enough genes flow. On a notebook page about the translocated wild dogs I made a star and wrote: “But are they wild?”
“Required: Bachelor’s degree in biology or conservation, willingness to work outdoors at any time of day and any day of week, ability to work silently while wearing a crane isolation-rearing costume for prolonged periods and function safely while looking through face mesh of low visibility.”
—From an ad for a Whooping Crane Reintroduction intern
At a conference break, I called a friend and told him about the fenced reserves, the mainland islands, the efforts to keep the predators away and the genes alive. “It’s like freezing someone’s head,” he said, thinking of Ted Williams, the late baseball player who wanted his head preserved in “biostasis” until the technology existed to conquer aging or transplant a brain.
In its enclosure at the Lincoln Park Zoo, an African wild dog lay on a rock. That crazy patchwork of colors and textures made it look more like a human dressed in furs than a creature in its own skin. On one side, the wind kicked up off Lake Michigan. On the other, across lanes of stop-and-go traffic, weak spring sunlight sparked off skyscraper windows. A toddler in a stroller dropped a sippy cup, which bounced away along the pavement. The dog didn’t look up. Was it alive? It was, of course; it breathed, flicked an ear. But it brought to mind the question about social insects: Which is the organism, the individual bee or the hive? Though a few other wild dogs lolled in the exhibit, it was a long way from an animal in its pack, bringing down a wildebeest, chasing an antelope three miles over the savannah. It was the opposite of the salmon, lunging for home, straining against the current, mating, rotting, forming the creek bank. The dog seemed closer to the taxidermied specimens in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, posed alert against a painted backdrop of the Serengeti. What if there’s no place to release it that isn’t a very large, well-disguised cage? Would it still be an African wild dog? Or something else?
Can I avoid the language of monsters?
“We have to get away from this idea of restoring species, or communities or ecosystems to some mythical static pre-human state—there is no such thing; massive environmental change has always been a force—the fact that humans are mediating change at this time is almost a minor detail in the greater scheme of things…. I think increasingly we are working towards ‘introductions’ rather than ‘re-introductions’ (as per IUCN definitions) and perhaps we (societies) should be making decisions about what types of wildlife communities and ecosystem functions would be appropriate for an area taking into account predicted change, and giving such predicted change greater weight than considerations of historical state.”
—From an email by Philip Seddon, editor of Reintroduction Biology: Integrating Science and Management
If, as Seddon says, reintroduction is actually more of an introduction, maybe it’s as risky and hubristic as the disastrous non-native-species releases I’d been reading about. The labs and the fenced reserves, the construction machinery, and the dramatic interventions are endlessly complex. Some are gargantuan feats of engineering. And after all of that, what do we have? An animal? A herd? An ecosystem? A creature that can move and breathe and reproduce, or a clanking Frankenstein held together with bolts and glue? The search is for something authentic, some way a human can reach in and set things in motion again, then step back, observe, and ultimately, vanish. But perhaps that’s just a very human dream, both the authenticity and the vanishing.
Tomales Point strikes many people as the end of the world. It’s a long finger of land in Point Reyes National Seashore, with Tomales Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, tapering to a pile of rocks and crashing waves. It’s a place I’ve always loved. On a visit to my parents in California, I hiked out to the tip. Coming over one of the small hills that ripple along it, I spooked a herd of tule elk. Thought extinct in the mid-nineteenth century, the population was rebuilt from a small group of stragglers found in an empty stretch of central California. They looked up at me, half jogging up the slope, backpack clanking with equipment, and stumbled to their feet and ran. Swerving one way and then another in clumps of five or ten, they finally converged in a stream, all headed the same direction. The grass rustled as they coursed through it. In the shifting fog, after encountering no other people for hours, I almost forgot about the fence at the start of the peninsula that keeps the herd here.
It reminded me of a film I’d seen at the Hirshhorn Museum. In Staging Silence by Hans Op de Beeck, hands move objects around a glassy table. They arrange twigs on stands, pour sand from cartons, sweep a path through the piles with a paint brush. It’s a game with toys, completely artificial. Then the lighting shifts, just a little, and suddenly the black and white of the film, the shadows, the loss of resolution, make you see it as an actual, natural landscape. You know you are being fooled, and you scrabble to hold on to what you know is true, the memory of the brush. But it doesn’t matter. You can’t unsee the barren winter branches and the cold sunlight reflecting off the river that runs through mounds of snow. Breath slows. You shiver.
When the Milltown Dam came down, just outside my home in Missoula, I wanted to watch, but my grandfather had died and I went to the funeral. The next day, I drove out to see where they had dismantled the earthen “coffer dam” and set the Blackfoot River free for the first time since 1908. It’d snowed again the night before and only two sets of tracks led to the Milltown Overlook. The paper sign tacked to the tree read, “Milltown Bluff Overlook. Milltown Reservoir Cleanup.” On the trail I met a petite blonde woman and a large blonde man with a camera. “A lot fewer people today,” he said.
Orange plastic fencing and yellow caution tape barricaded the end of the cliff. The Blackfoot snaked below us, beyond the Stimson Lumber Company, a mill that had been shuttered part by part and was set to close down completely but still puffed smoke this early Saturday morning. In the vast construction site below most of the excavators rested their shovels in the snow, but one beeped along, digging up sediments from the diamond-shaped plain to be carted off to the town of Opportunity. On the other side of the river, down where men in orange vests watched from their closer vantage point, a dog ran circles. The mud above them was broken off in raw sheets. A band of crows flapped upstream. It looked very raw, very built.
The landscape was familiar at this point. Slowly I was settling in, touring the mill for an environmental journalism class, digging a small prairie garden to draw native pollinators, pulling up spotted knapweed and planting fringed sage at an old army base, writing radio essays about yellow-headed blackbirds and horsetails, bringing my children to wade in the river on warmer days.
A man wearing binoculars came down the path with his bundled-up wife. He pointed out the original channel and said he was surprised at how fast it had gone down, how quickly the water had found its way: “It was really slow, just a trickle, then it started taking off.” Muddy rapids coursed past the cement of the original dam. I asked if he was here yesterday and he said, “I wasn’t planning to but my boss said, ‘Heck, you’re so interested. Go.’ I stayed for a few hours and then went back. I worked late.”
He paced along the edge of the bluff, checking through his binoculars, telling his wife how the current would strengthen with time. A long train whistle echoed as a blue engine headed through Bonner. Another man walked from the snowy hill toward us. Then a woman in red down, and a man in a barn jacket.
And it felt good, standing behind the caution tape, fingers going numb, watching for them to come back, the bull trout, the westslope cutthroat, the mountain whitefish, the Rocky Mountain sculpin, the longnose dace, waiting together.