Adding North America’s Grasslands, Savannas, and Central Waterways – Our Continent’s Greatest Watershed – to the Continental Rewilding Map

Summary 

Rewilding proponents have too often overlooked the Heartland.  Bold visionary groups like The Rewilding Institute, Wildlands Network, and Yellowstone to Yukon have so far focused mostly on the rugged or inhospitable parts of the continent where protecting and restoring wild Nature is relatively easy.  We are overdue to start filling in that vast empty space in rewilding maps between the Appalachians and Rockies.  We are overdue to start rewilding the Mississippi River watershed and the Great Plains.

To that end, The Rewilding Institute (TRI; rewilding.org) proposes a partnership with conservation leaders in the prairie states and provinces and the even larger Mississippi River watershed, particularly BeWildReWild, to sketch and advance a vision of wildlife and wilderness recovery across the Great Plains and throughout the Mississippi River basin. The Rewilding Institute will promote a Great Plains Wildway and connecting riverine wildways and avian flyways through our on-line publication Rewilding Earth, through an expanded second edition of Dave Foreman’s landmark book Rewilding North America, through social media and field podcasts, through scouting proposed protected areas, and through assisting ecological restoration work on the ground.

Tasks

Specific tasks we’ll undertake on behalf of the waterways, flyways, grasslands and savannas of North America’s vast and under-appreciated Heartland include those listed below.  Maps will incorporate or build upon the impressive maps already produced by BeWildReWild, particularly the Big River Connectivity series, and be shared with wider audiences.  As with BeWildReWild maps, artistic beauty as well as biological opportunity will inspire the work.

Map Avian Flyways (the first-recognized continental wildways, as Dave Foreman has said); and explain how to use them to defend places critical to migratory birds, butterflies, bats, dragonflies, and other flying creatures.

Map Staging Areas and Stopover points for migratory species, and describe how these can be protected.

Map existing protected areas, such as National Wildlife Refuges, land trust properties, county conservation areas, and state parks, and potentially wild connections between them. Point activists to particular protected area campaigns they can join.

Map other potential core reserves, such as in the Ozarks, Loess Hills, Driftless Plateau, Badlands, Black Hills, Sweet Hills, sparsely populated parts of the Shortgrass Prairie, and in lowlands (such as along the lower Mississippi) likely to become uninhabitable with climate chaos.

Map public lands, including national and state forests, grasslands, and parks, as well as privately conserved lands that provide critical wildlife habitat connections.

Map Native American lands where tribes may be keen to restore native wildlife, particularly Bison, Wolves, and prairie dogs.

Map known animal great-dispersal (wild wanderer) events, like that of Earl the Elk southeasterly out of Montana’s Sweet Hills in the late 1980s and Walker the Puma easterly out of South Dakota’s Black Hills in 2010.

Map depopulating areas, where rewilding through benign neglect may be occurring or can be encouraged.  Revive the Buffalo Commons and similar wild visions for the Great Plains.

Map free-flowing stream stretches, Wild & Scenic Rivers, and intact riparian zones.  Note dead-beat dams and describe how they might be removed.

Map original and remaining habitat for focal aquatic and semi-aquatic species, including American Eel, Atlantic Sturgeon, Paddlefish, Brook and Lake Trout, Hellbender, Spiny Softshell Turtle, River Otter, and Mink.

Map wooded streams draining east from the Rocky Mountains and west from the Appalachian Mountains that may serve as dispersal corridors for Pumas trying to recolonize former habitats in the Midwest and East.

With each map layer, provide contact information for leading conservation and restoration groups.  Provide links to relevant articles in rewilding.org, bewildrewild.org, and other sources.

Ground-truth the maps, and in so doing meet leading wildlife and wildlands advocates and conservation biologists in the places they work, and interview them for podcasts.  Much of this on-ground work, though, might need to wait for a second phase of the project, after travels and in-person meetings are considered safe again.

Identify and offer to assist Native American groups restoring Bison and other native wildlife to their ancestral lands.  Feature tribal rewilding efforts in our publications.  When invited to do so, include tribal lands in our wildway maps.

Work with Project Coyote (projectcoyote.org) and others to foster coexistence with carnivores and other sensitive wildlife, and to end wildlife-killing contests. The Rewilding Institute and Project Coyote have a close partnership which includes our shared carnivore conservation biologist, Dave Parsons, who hales from Iowa, and understands well the unique challenges of conservation in this heavily-farmed part of the world.  TRI will urge Project Coyote to apply for a complementary grant to help with the coexistence work.  (One of PC’s reps recently moved from NM to Midwest, so they are poised to expand their presence there anyway.)

Outcomes for year 1

Tangible results of our first year of Rewilding the Heartland work will largely be in the form of maps and stories for Rewilding Earth, our on-line publication, the second edition of Dave Foreman’s book Rewilding North America, and the original Heartland rewilding initiative, bewildrewild.org.  Equally important, though, will be building relationships between key rewilding players, particularly The Rewilding Institute, BeWildReWild, and Project Coyote, but also local and regional wildlands protection and restoration groups and wildlife advocates.

Thus, another outcome of the first phase of work is increased participation in state-wide wildlife planning (particularly through State Wildlife Action Plans, or SWAPs).  Modest gains in rewilding, with universally popular species like songbirds, trout, and otters, may be made without fundamental changes in wildlife governance.  Bringing home the top carnivores, however, and restoring other little-known or controversial species, will require a much wider embrace of coexistence than current wildlife management affords.  That is, with this first Rewilding the Heartland proposal and subsequent stages, we must mobilize more people who love wildlife to turn out to meetings, write advocacy letters, and let their neighbors know that wildlife prosperity depends on all of us.  The Mississippi River watershed includes parts or all of many states, of course, so initial priority will be given to mobilizing wildlife advocates where BeWildReWild, The Rewilding Institute, or Project Coyote already have allies in place, particularly Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

A third outcome of phase 1 will be identifying and promoting, via our websites and networking. incentives for private lands conservation and restoration.  Even more in the Heartland than in the East, realizing our wildway visions depends upon making wildlife-friendly practices on private lands not just affordable but financially advantageous.  The Rewilding the Heartland program will expand the decades-long process of linking owners of critical lands, especially those bearing waterways, with carbon sequestration programs or other incentives for preserving and restoring natural grasslands, forests, and streams.  It will also identify agricultural programs and subsidies that need to be reformed so that the “corn belt” and other areas currently dominated by agribusiness are not treated as national sacrifice zones.

All of these outcomes will be summarized and shared in a Rewilding the Heartland webinar series, co-hosted by BeWildReWild, The Rewilding Institute, and perhaps a few others of our key partners (Project Coyote again being one of among TRI’s most reliable and inspiring partners; Wild Farm Alliance and Wildlands Network being other obvious possibilities).  Webinars will be recorded and made available on the websites of sponsoring groups.

Rewilding plans will also be shared with college and other school groups.  Student bodies are where we will recruit many of our activists.  While the pandemic still rages, in-person presentations to students are not advisable.  For this year, speaking to students via Zoom and Teams meetings will be appropriate. Once most people are vaccinated, we’ll hope to speak to student groups regularly and often take them afield to experience wildlife and work to restore it.

So as not to sound nebulous, though, let us say that at a minimum, the Rewilding the Heartland work in its first year will generate and publish Wildways maps for the Great Plains and Mississippi River watershed (using the afore-mentioned layers); publish in rewilding.org and bewildrewild.org rewilding stories and visions from throughout the greater region; and host at least three Heartland Rewilding webinars.  These outcomes should in turn enable us to mobilize scores of concerned citizens to speak out for their wild neighbors. 

Beyond 2021

In a second (hopefully post-pandemic) phase of this Rewilding the Heartland project, rewilding leaders would hit the trail, so to speak, exploring and promoting wildways, doing field podcasts with regional conservation and restoration leaders, and generally spreading ideas on how to protect and restore wild places and their wild residents.  They’d give special attention to keystone species and places, the restoration or protection of which would yield wide-ranging benefits.  Focal species may include Puma, River Otter, Mink, American Eel, prairie dogs, and migratory waterfowl.

Also in a second phase, wildlands philanthropy opportunities would be explored and promoted.  TRI would play a matchmaker role in linking conservation buyers with lands needing protection, wildlands activists with protected area or endangered species campaigns, and students with vital research projects.

Principal players

BeWildReWild leaders, including Ross Gipple, Mark Edwards, Abby Terpstra, Leland Searles, and Nitin Gadia
Dave Foreman, The Rewilding Institute founder and author of Rewilding North America
Kurt Menke, conservation mapper and GIS expert
Jack Humphrey, Rewilding Earth digital director and podcast anchor
Dave Parsons, TRI carnivore conservation biologist
Katie Shepard, Rewilding Earth production manager and social medium
Susan Morgan, TRI president
Kim Crumbo, TRI wildlands coordinator
John Miles, Rewilding Leadership Council coordinator
John Davis, Rewilding Earth editor and wildways scout
Project Coyote leaders including executive director Camilla Fox

Estimated budget

Estimated budget for 2021 (forecasting that we can raise 25k from grants and gifts)

Mapping

$10,000, much of it done by Kurt Menke on contract with TRI;

Research and writing

$5000, much of it done by Dave Foreman for second edition of his landmark book Rewilding North America;

Digital presentations, including rewilding webinars

$5000, much of it coordinated by Jack Humphrey and Katie Shepard;

On-ground work with BeWildReWild

Project Coyote, and other partners $5000

Total requested for 2021

$25,000, with hopes of renewed support for expanding the work in 2022.  TRI will seek individual gifts to add to any foundation grants received.

This grant marks a milestone in the brief history of BeWildReWild…as well as for me personally after many years of reading and dreaming about Reconnect-Restore-Rewild. The time has arrived at last for a continental-scale wildways map which includes my beloved American Heartland. Plus, BIG RIVER CONNECTIVITY now has an advantage of partnering with many widely recognized Rewilding professionals. And, there is one more reason to believe in the eventual realization of our vision for a wilder, more beautiful, more biologically diverse, and a more enduring Mississippi River Watershed. 

–Roger Ross Gipple

 

 

Rewilding The Heartland: Restoring Big River Connectivity and Rewilding The Mississippi River Watershed

Overview

This page tells the still-evolving story of the Rewilding the Heartland program, which started with Roger Ross Gipple and a small group of citizen conservationists in Iowa, grew to include portions of surrounding states and a vision of Big River Connectivity, and became the grandest Wildlands Network Design effort yet, encompassing the entire Mississippi River Watershed.

Dave Foreman, Rewilding Institute founder and father of the rewilding concept, argues in his landmark book Rewilding North America, that four great continental wildways – Atlantic/Appalachian, Boreal/Tundra, Spine of the Continent/Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Crest & Coast – ought to be the foundations for conserving and restoring our continent’s great natural heritage. Dave has since looked at possible Great Plains and Gulf Coast Wildways. The Rewilding Institute (TRI) has heretofore mostly worked in the Spine of the Continent and Atlantic/Appalachian Wildways. We are delighted to be working now on Rewilding the Heartland–the Mississippi River Watershed.

Rewilding the Heartland can contribute greatly to the 30 x 30 and Half Earth efforts.

This Big River Connectivity resource page is a shared tool from The Rewilding Institute, BeWildReWild, Project Coyote, and the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.

It points caring people toward actions they can take to restore health to our continent’s grandest watershed; shows maps that highlight rewilding opportunities and delineate current and possible future reserves, especially along rivers; lists relevant podcasts and articles; and provides links to groups doing the good hard work on the ground, including wildlife advocacy organizations and land trusts.

"Creating a more biologically diverse, more enduring, and more beautiful Mississippi River Watershed"

Rewilding the Heartland and Big River Connectivity are two newer, greener terms that hint at the central role the Mississippi River watershed should play in continental rewilding efforts.

~John Davis, Executive Director of The Rewilding Institute

Iowa is “ground zero” for needed ecological restoration

BeWildReWild leaders Ross Gipple and Mark Edwards have observed that Iowa is “Ground Zero” for needed ecological restoration. Iowa is 99.3% developed.  [Read: “The Wildest Place In The World” by Mark Edwards.] Moreover, rewilding environmental historian John Miles has urged that we ought to practice rewilding at all scales and wherever we can.

Protecting continental cores and wildways is essential to life on Earth, especially those creatures who wander widely. Restoring local cores and wildways is essential to securing rare and endemic species, as well asto reconnecting people with wildlife in their neighborhoods.

"We ought to practice rewilding at all scales and wherever we can."

~environmental historian John Miles

Loess Hills, Iowa

So, in that most altered state of Iowa, "ground zero," how do we help wildlife return?

Ross Gipple has an elegant formula to do so: Retire from agriculture and Restore — to at least semi-natural conditions — the wetlands, floodplains, and slopes 9% or higher in gradient, and create a large core reserve spanning the Loess Hills.  

This would allow Iowa to achieve about 30% protection.

Different states and provinces will contribute different amounts to the needed 50% minimum for each country: Montana and Maine, for instance, could be mostly wild in our lifetimes; Iowa and Illinois will likely continue to grow much more food for people than for wildlife, at least until we allow human numbers – in terms of both population and consumption – to relax back to sustainable levels.

Study areas: Loess Hills, The Driftless, Ozark Plateau

Initial Study Areas

BeWild ReWild and Leland Searles developed data and maps for not only Iowa, but also for portions of surrounding states with similar ecological characteristics and connectivity.  These included the Iowa River Corridor; the Loess Hills of northwestern Iowa and extending along the Missouri River Corridor into Missouri and Nebraska and bits of South Dakota and Kansas; the Driftless area overlapping Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota; and the Ozark Plateau centered in Missouri just to the south of Iowa and also overlapping Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

The “Rewilding the Heartland” program is currently developing data and maps and plans for those three Initial Study Areas: The Loess HillsThe Driftless area, and the Ozark Plateau.  Other areas will be added as funding and capacity become available.

The Mighty Mississippi River Watershed

Partisans Eastern and Western have spoken for years of the “Midwest” as “flyover country”. North America’s largest, the Mississippi River Watershed is indeed “flyover” country for millions of migratory birds, and is also stopover country for these same avian miracles, and is seasonal or year-round habitat for much of our continent’s native biota. 

BeWild ReWild and Roger Ross Gipple quickly identified the need for rewilding a much broader area, that of the entire Mississippi River Watershed, and envisioned the Big River Connectivity project. That is, almost all United States land between the Appalachian and Adirondack Mountains of the East and the Rocky Mountains of the West. They also arranged for Nitin Gadia, an expert mapper, to develop a preliminary rewilding map of the watershed.

How we treat waterways has everything to do with the biodiversity and connectivity of a region, as evidenced in this short film, “Cedar Creek.”

"Cedar Creek" is a thought-provoking short film about one small but important creek in Jefferson County, Iowa and what happened to the water and the wildlife when the creek was altered. Written and directed by award-winning documentarian Dick DeAngelis and made possible by a Community Art Gathering grant from the BeWildReWild Fund.

"Rewilding the Heartland and Big River Connectivity are two newer phrases that hint at the central role the Mississippi River Watershed plays in continental rewilding efforts."

John Davis

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE REWILDING INSTITUTE

The Mississippi River Watershed is truly the Heartland of North America

…perhaps a better metaphor than “breadbasket”, and certainly better than “cornbelt”. It includes all or parts of 32 states and two provinces, encompassing roughly 1.2 million square miles–nearly one third of North America.

And The Ozark Plateau is truly the Wild Heart of the Heartland

The large Ozark Plateau, when viewing the maps with a “species richness” layer, is plainly the “Wild Heart of the Heartland” in the Mississippi River Watershed!

Wounds to Nature -- Healing, Rewilding, and Mapping

Human actions have caused a decrease in wildness through wounding Nature.

Seven Types of Wounds to Nature

1. killing

2. ecosystem degradation/loss

3. habitat fragmentation

4. natural process degradation/loss

5. exotic/invasive species invasion

6. poisoning

7. climate change.

Protected Lands

Early maps showed public lands such as Forest Service, National Park, Bureau of Land Management and National Wildlife Refuge lands. Later maps also showed Wilderness and Proposed Wilderness lands, and Wild and Scenic Rivers. Still later maps added other information layers such as terrain, topography, ground cover and ecosystem type.

Effigy Mounds National Monument Iowa

The most striking aspect of Protected Areas in the Mississippi River Watershed is how very few there are!

Only Montana and Wyoming have significant large Protected Areas within the overall Heartland area. There are only modest protected areas in western North and South Dakota, the front range of the Colorado Rockies, the Southern Rockies of northeast New Mexico, northern Wisconsin, Arkansas and Tennessee. Most of the Heartland has very little protected area, and the existing few individual areas are not connected.

 

Maps developed using Geographic Information System (GIS) techniques and portraying multiple layers of information are particularly useful. [Read: “Mapping For Rewilding – A Healing Nature’s Wounds Perspective” by Rewilding Institute Board Member Bob Howard]

Example Maps & Network Designs

We are now using multiple GIS data layers organized by wound type whenever that is possible. However, Nature is extremely complex and there is a paucity of data available to put into the maps. Sometimes available information for an individual wound type (or species or habitat marker or poison, etc.) must be used as a proxy for other missing information. We do not have–may never have–the data for some of the GIS layers that we know would be very useful.

Putting It All Together

Kurt Menke, a former professor teaching GIS Mapping, has put all the available data into a series of maps for the Heartland Rewilding Program. The map below shows the overall boundaries of the Rewilding the Heartland program, including the Mississippi River Watershed, the current Protected Areas, the Initial Study Areas, *Flyways, and potential Connectivity regions/corridors.
*We are still working on flyway data and hope to have an updated map including flyways soon!

 

Using human ecological footprint data, Kurt also shows in the map below the level of potential for rewilding in the Mississippi River Watershed. This is the first provisional effort to display the data for the entire area..

 

Actions to Rewild The Heartland

With lessons learned from West and East, we offer these preliminary suggestions on how to restore Big River Connectivity:

  • Offer buy-out programs for agricultural lands in steep, flood-prone, or climatically-imperiled areas, and turn these into state, provincial, tribal, and federal parks and refuges; or protect them with permanent conservation easements.
  • Change the Conservation Reserve Program to favor permanent retirement of marginal farm lands (not just the current ten-year rest), so they can truly return to wild Nature.
  • Install safe wildlife crossings – carefully located overpasses and underpasses — on busy roads where wild animals are getting killed and injured. 
  • Help land trusts acquire huge interconnected reserves in the shortgrass prairie (where land prices are modest and agriculture marginal), as wonderfully done by Southern Plains Land Trust in Colorado and American Prairie Reserve in Montana.
  • Create generous financial incentives for landowners to conserve and restore their lands.
  • Put a high price on carbon, and find other ways to encourage the market favor wilderness and wildlife protection and restoration.
  • Assist tribes in restoring natural plant communities and native wildlife to their lands.
  • Protect all intact prairie potholes and other wetlands, migratory bird staging and stopover sites, prairie and savanna and forest remnants, and free-flowing streams.
  • Restore native grasses and forbs on any former grazing lands freed from exploitation.
  • Remove obsolete dams and artificial levees, right-size culverts and bridges, and restore natural water flow patterns.
 

Select focal species and design and implement reserve systems generous enough to provide for all their needs and behaviors.

Focal species for the Mississippi River Watershed may include:

American Eel, sturgeon, trout, River Otter, Mink, Beaver, migratory birds, rare tall-grass species, Bison, prairie dogs, Swift Fox, Puma, and Gray Wolf

  • Eliminate government subsidies for ecologically-damaging activities such as livestock grazing on public lands.
  • Phase out commercial exploitation of public lands – including fossil fuel extraction, logging, and livestock grazing —  while helping lessees transition to ecologically sustainable businesses.
  • Encourage “Buffalo Commons” ideas, which would largely replace domestic livestock with native wildlife while also helping landowners profit from this transition.
  • Foster wildlife-friendly farming practices and encourage coexistence with the full range of native wildlife.
  • Reform wildlife and land management agencies, especially at state and federal levels – which by and large are stuck in harvest-oriented management and predator control mindsets. 
  • Confront the fundamental problem of human overpopulation and over-consumption – too many people consuming too many resources.
  • Learn and teach natural history and conservation biology at all levels and for all ages and groups, but especially to young people who have not yet lost their sense of wonder.
  • Link Big River Connectivity designs and implementation with complementary efforts eastward and westward, including rewilding work for Atlantic/Appalachian, Gulf Coast, and Spine of the Continent Wildways.
  • Coordinate rewilding work also with colleagues in Canada, who have a smaller but significant portion of the Mississippi River Watershed, as well as a much larger portion of North America’s grassland biome.

Map Gallery

Bob Howard, TRI Board Member

Mapping for Rewilding – A Healing Nature’s Wounds Perspective

Maps have played an important role in identifying, characterizing, and planning wilderness protection and wildlife habitat conservation for years. What is needed for rewilding and wilderness protection are maps that can be viewed and understood by politicians, agency personnel, and interested citizens.

Maps based on Geographic Information System (GIS) layers have proven particularly useful. Such GIS mapping efforts went into the published Sky Islands Wildlands Network, the New Mexico Highlands Wildlands Network, the Southern Rockies Wildlands Network, and many subsequent land conservation efforts. [READ MORE]