Humans long ago eradicated most of the large California megafauna in two great waves of activity, one beginning when the first humans, the Clovis people, arrived over a land bridge from Siberia about 13,000 years ago. The second wave of extermination occurred with the arrival of guns around 300 years ago. Let's bring the animals back.
Repopulating, or "rewilding," is not a new idea. Tule elk, which once roamed the state in thick droves, were hunted to within a hair's breadth of extinction. A perspicacious cattle rancher in the 1850s saved the last 20 or so animals. Today, after reintroduction, they are thriving by the thousands in locations throughout the state, most conspicuously at Point Reyes north of San Francisco.
In 1827, grizzly bears could be "seen in herds" just 20 miles outside San Francisco. The grizzly so epitomized California that it was put on the state flag, where it remains today. Unfortunately, that's the only place it remains.
Yet top predators are very important to an ecosystem, as we've learned from the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone Park. After being eliminated from Yellowstone in the 1926, the wolf's reintroduction has had a surprisingly positive impact: bringing back the aspen.
The aspen tree was being wiped out in Yellowstone. No new aspen trees had grown in the park for 70 years. With the reintroduction of the gray wolf, aspens began to sprout up in large stands, especially in river valleys. It turns out the elk no longer forage in areas where they can be easily ambushed by wolves.
A domino effect begins: Trees along riverbanks reduce topsoil erosion, providing both cleaner riparian habitats and richer upland soils. The wolf, by indirectly allowing trees to grow, also led to the resurgence of the historic beaver population in Yellowstone. The impact of beavers, with their incredible dams, is now being studied. A mere 12 years after reintroduction, the positive trickle-down impact of the wolf has amazed scientists.
Just a hundred years ago, tule elk, pronghorn, big horn sheep and grizzly bears were endemic to California. If we go back to before the arrival of humans, California's biodiversity was much richer still: lions, camels, mammoths, wild horses, rhinoceros, cheetahs and many more magnificent beasts.
All this leads to a couple important questions. For one, who would support reintroducing predators that might want to eat humans? Also, wouldn't rewilding cost too much money and take too much land? We need that land for humans.
Let's chew on the issue of human predation. Alaska is a good example to consider. Alaska has a vast expanse of wilderness supporting every fearsome type of bear imaginable. But in 102 years of record-keeping, only 56 deaths can be attributed to bears. Meanwhile, in 2004 alone, 102 deaths in Alaska were due to motor vehicles. In terms of risk, a hundred years of bear attacks equals six months of driving around.
Rewilding wouldn't be such a bad thing for the economy, either. Can you imagine the increase in tourism if we reintroduced big, exciting megafauna? Good jobs would surely follow. Scientist will be needed to study the successes and failures of our efforts, as will park rangers and jobs catering to the inevitable tourists.
If not California, who will pick up the mantle of restoring Earth's biodiversity? Unlike most conservation ideas, rewilding is singularly proactive and optimistic. It aspires to more than mere preservation of the biodiversity left on the planet — it would bring back some of the rich fabric humans inadvertently destroyed.