Rewilding the Heartland

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