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Saving Wild Areas May Have Unexpected Results

Reindeer are the most numerous animals in Pleistocene Park, where death rates among these species are low. (Credit: Pleistocene Park)

Reindeer are the most numerous animals in Pleistocene Park, where death rates among these species are low. (Credit: Pleistocene Park)

Wild horses, oxen and reindeer are returning to Siberia for the first time in 10,000 years.

Their new home is Pleistocene Park, a wilderness area on Russia’s Kolyma River.

The park opened in 1989. It was launched as an experiment to recreate an environment that disappeared long ago, during Earth’s Ice Age.

Russian scientist Sergey Zimov imagined wild horses, musk ox and reindeer enjoying the grasslands. He says the animals will eat the plants and fertilize the soil. This will support the growth of grasslands.

But that has yet to happen. The park is home to fewer than 200 animals.

David Nogues is an ecologist with the University of Copenhagen. He studies relationships between living things and their environments. What worries him about Pleistocene Park is what he calls the unknown.

“Imagine, like, bringing new species that were not living in our ecosystem for 10,000 years. … We consider, the researchers in this study, that we researchers cannot predict yet what might be the consequences of this new conservation approach.”

Nogues helped to write a report that urges restraint in “rewilding,” to save wild places. The report was published in the journal Cell Biology.

The recovery of wolves in America's Yellowstone National Park is often noted as an example as successful rewilding. Ninety-one wolves were brought to Yellowstone in the 1990s. Since then, the park’s wolf population has increased five times.

But the animals cause unexpected changes in the environment, something that Wolf Project Manager Doug Smith noted more than 10 years ago. He says wolves keep elk away from the park. This enables willow plants that elk eat to grow.

"Songbirds, moose, muskrat, (and) mink – all these animals benefit when these willows come back.”

Wildlife researchers are closely watching the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park. But the spread of the animals outside the park has angered local ranchers. They say cattle losses have increased with the wolf population.

Rancher Richard Kinkie says because Yellowstone’s wolves are federally protected, he has few choices.

“Certainly I would like to see the controls loosened up on us, so we can deal with wolves.”

Ecologist Nogues says politicians and the public must consider the best science before launching a rewilding program. He argues that protecting biodiversity is a better first step to avoid the problem of species loss.

I’m Kathleen Struck.

Rosanne Skirble reported on this story for George Grow adapted her report for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

ecosystemn. functionality

conservation – adj. of or related to the protection of animals, plants and other things in nature

approachn. method

species – n. a group of animals or plants that are similar