Two hundred years ago, grizzly bears and wolves inhabited the forests and marshes where Vancouver now stands, yet there were no coyotes or raccoons. The majestic condor, far larger than the bald eagle, roamed up the coast searching for whale and sea lion carcasses. Salmon spawned in hundreds of streams that flowed where city streets now lie. How times have changed!
Imagining this ancient landscape just became easier, thanks to a new Museum of Vancouver exhibit, “Rewilding Vancouver”. The February 26 opening was attended by a mixed crowd of 300 urbanites and wilderness enthusiasts, who were invited to re-imagine their city. What would it be like to have grizzlies back in Stanley Park? How would beavers transform the landscape? Whatever happened to those zany little Asian crested mynas that lived downtown for a while before disappearing? All these questions and more are answered in the innovative displays, inspired by guest curator James MacKinnon’s new book, The Once and Future World. MacKinnon, author with Alisa Smith of The 100-Mile Diet, explores the global picture of rewilding in his book—looking at what impacts humans have had on the natural world and how we can set things right—but brings a local sensibility to the Vancouver exhibit.
Rewilding is not a new concept, but it is gaining traction in new directions. David Foreman’s 2004 book, Rewilding North America: a Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century, describes the tragic ecological history of the continent and our options for restoration of landscapes through wildlife reintroduction. English writer and environmentalist, George Monbiot, argued the positive effects of rewilding, for nature and people, in his 2013 book Feral, Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life. His TED talk brought the concept to a wider audience. He vividly describes the unanticipated side effects that occurred after the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The wolves were intended to control elk, which they did. The elk moved away from the valleys, so bushes and shrubs along the river re-grew, and other animals, such as beavers, moved in. Songbirds came back, attracted by insects and berries in the now flourishing vegetation. The beavers reshaped the streams, slowing their flow and providing frog and fish habitat. Landowners who had originally extirpated the wolves had not understood the importance of trophic cascades, which occur when top predators control an entire ecosystem.
Monbiot gives another example. Contrary to expectations, hunting baleen whales close to extinction did not increase the amount of krill in the ocean. In fact the opposite happened: plankton and krill also declined rapidly, and with it whole ecosystems of fish and seabirds dependant on the microscopic food. The voluminous waste flow from feeding whales actually provides the fertilizer that nourishes phytoplankton, the source of all ocean productivity.
Rewilding is about memory. People are good at forgetting, recalibrating and denying. Daniel Pauly, the eminent fisheries scientist, described this mindset as “shifting baseline syndrome”, where each generation sees the nature around them, however degraded, as "normal". The Lower Mainland once had huge flocks of band-tailed pigeons, but only a few remain. They were a favourite target for hunters, as were brant, a small goose that graced many a table for Christmas dinner. Few people now know and appreciate these birds. Salmon and trees were all physically larger in the past. Old photos seem unbelievable, even make-believe. Our collective memory soon fades; it is easier to deny what we have destroyed than to believe it. In many ways, rewilding could give us back our memory and by restoring nature, we can bring respect to our human role in the world.
Rewilding is taking place wherever landscapes are restored, native species are reintroduced, and nature returns. Sometimes it is accidental or tragic, as in Chernobyl or Detroit. Other times, it is deliberate policy that creates the change. The last 21 Californian condors in the wild were taken into captivity in 1987 to ensure they did not go extinct. Four years later reintroductions into California and Arizona began, giving these awesome birds a second chance at survival. Similarly, a much smaller, charismatic hawk, the red kite, was re-introduced to southern England. It had been widely described as "vermin" and exterminated by the 1700s. Reintroductions began in 1989 and now this beautiful bird flies again over many areas of the English countryside. It takes even longer to change attitudes. Harriers (a grassland hawk) are still considered vermin by gamekeepers in the U.K., who shoot them on sight. There are now very few left.
Scavenging animals play an essential role by eating carcasses and rodents. They are, by nature, opportunists, and flourish according to local circumstances. Vancouver crows and gulls congregate in huge flocks wherever there is a chance of food, coyotes roam the alleys, and black bears tip garbage cans in the hilly suburbs. In India, nature’s waste controllers have recently gone awry. Formerly prolific vulture populations have almost been wiped out by diclofenac poisoning—white-rumped vulture numbers fell 99.7 percent between 1993 and 2002. Diclofenac is an anti-inflammatory drug that was fed to domestic livestock prior to 2006, but proved fatal to vultures. Since many people in India raise cows for milk, but do not consume the meat, there are always many carcasses to be destroyed, an important role of vultures over millennia. With the near total annihilation of three common vulture species, wild dog populations have soared, dramatically increasing the risk of rabies and other disease. Reports of a leopard on the prowl in Meerut suggests other large predators may move into cities to take advantage of unscavenged remains.
Rewilding presents us with a conundrum. What exactly is the “wild” to which we might want to return? This is the question MacKinnon and the Museum of Vancouver ask in their exhibit. The massive mammoth tusk on view reminds us that those extinct elephants were once part of the west coast ecosystem. Does rewilding mean bringing back the extinct mammoth, as some in northern Europe would like to try? Or does it mean day-lighting local streams so that salmon return to spawn (a relatively easy, though potentially expensive task)? Would people welcome grizzly bears closer to our ski hills? These large predators have been observed in the Stein Valley only a watershed away from the Lower Mainland.
The students of Emily Carr University of Art and Design became involved in the rewilding discussion by creating an eco-tour of wild Vancouver in a series of short videos. They take us from the green roof of the Vancouver Convention Centre to the waters of Still Creek, from the compensation habitat at False Creek to the bird-rich shores of Boundary Bay. The videos demonstrate the endless opportunities for rewilding Vancouver, aiming to be a global "greenest city". Everyone should visit the museum exhibit, read the books, view the videos and join in the discussion. What are your thoughts on rewilding Vancouver?
("Rewilding Vancouver" is at the Museum of Vancouver [1100 Chestnut Street] from February 27 to September 1. The exhibition team includes MOV curator Viviane Gosselin, designer Kevin McAllister, and guest curator J.B. MacKinnon.)