Review

Rewilding complex ecosystems

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Science  26 Apr 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6438, eaav5570
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5570

Facilitating “wildness”

Humans have encroached upon a majority of Earth's lands. The current extinction crisis is a testament to human impacts on wilderness. If there is any hope of retaining a biodiverse planetary system, we must begin to learn how to coexist with, and leave space for, other species. The practice of “rewilding” has emerged as a method for returning wild lands, and wildness, to landscapes we have altered. Perino et al. review this concept and present a framework for implementing it broadly and in a way that considers ongoing human interaction.

Science, this issue p. eaav5570

Structured Abstract

BACKGROUND

Rapid global change is creating fundamental challenges for the persistence of natural ecosystems and their biodiversity. Conservation efforts aimed at the protection of landscapes have had mixed success, and there is an increasing awareness that the long-term protection of biodiversity requires inclusion of flexible restoration along with protection. Rewilding is one such approach that has been both promoted and criticized in recent years. Proponents emphasize the potential of rewilding to tap opportunities for restoration while creating benefits for both ecosystems and societies. Critics discuss the lack of a consistent definition of rewilding and insufficient knowledge about its potential outcomes. Other criticisms arise from the mistaken notion that rewilding actions are planned without considering societal acceptability and benefits. Here, we present a framework for rewilding actions that can serve as a guideline for researchers and managers. The framework is applicable to a variety of rewilding approaches, ranging from passive to trophic rewilding, and aims to promote beneficial interactions between society and nature.

ADVANCES

The concept of rewilding has evolved from its initial emphasis on protecting large, connected areas for large carnivore conservation to a process-oriented, dynamic approach. On the basis of concepts from resilience and complexity theory of social-ecological systems, we identify trophic complexity, stochastic disturbances, and dispersal as three critical components of natural ecosystem dynamics. We propose that the restoration of these processes, and their interactions, can lead to increased self-sustainability of ecosystems and should be at the core of rewilding actions. Building on these concepts, we develop a framework to design and evaluate rewilding plans. Alongside ecological restoration goals, our framework emphasizes people’s perceptions and experiences of wildness and the regulating and material contributions from restoring nature. These societal aspects are important outcomes and may be critical factors for the success of rewilding initiatives (see the figure). We further identify current societal constraints on rewilding and suggest actions to mitigate them.

OUTLOOK

The concept of rewilding challenges us to rethink the way we manage nature and to broaden our vision about how nature will respond to changes that society brings, both intentionally and unintentionally. The effects of rewilding actions will be specific to each ecosystem, and thus a deep understanding of the processes that shape ecosystems is critical to anticipate these effects and to take appropriate management actions. In addition, the decision of whether a rewilding approach is desirable should consider stakeholders’ needs and expectations. To this end, structured restoration planning—based on participatory processes involving researchers, managers, and stakeholders—that includes monitoring and adaptive management can be used. With the recent designation of 2021–2030 as the “decade of ecosystem restoration” by the United Nations General Assembly, policy- and decision-makers could push rewilding topics to the forefront of discussions about how to reach post-2020 biodiversity goals.

Rewilding actions and outcomes are framed by societal and ecological context.

Rewilding can be assessed by representing the state of ecosystems in a three-dimensional space where each dimension corresponds to an ecological process. The difference in volume between the restored (yellow pyramid) and the degraded ecosystem (orange pyramid) is a proxy for the effects of rewilding on the self-sustainability of the ecosystem. The dashed line within the yellow pyramid represents the societal boundaries that determine to what extent ecological processes can be restored. Rewilding actions can help push societal boundaries toward the ecological potential (orange arrows) by promoting societal support and opportunities for people to experience the autonomy of ecological processes in enjoyable ways.

Abstract

The practice of rewilding has been both promoted and criticized in recent years. Benefits include flexibility to react to environmental change and the promotion of opportunities for society to reconnect with nature. Criticisms include the lack of a clear conceptualization of rewilding, insufficient knowledge about possible outcomes, and the perception that rewilding excludes people from landscapes. Here, we present a framework for rewilding that addresses these concerns. We suggest that rewilding efforts should target trophic complexity, natural disturbances, and dispersal as interacting processes that can improve ecosystem resilience and maintain biodiversity. We propose a structured approach to rewilding projects that includes assessment of the contributions of nature to people and the social-ecological constraints on restoration.

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