From Wilderness and Natural Processes to a Future Orientated Coexistence

Our arguments so far have caused us to raise serious questions about the extent to which “natural ecological processes” or “wilderness” are either potentially achievable or even desirable goals for the general conservation of large carnivores and large herbivores. Therefore, the question remains: what we should replace it with? The recent history of carnivore and herbivore conservation in Europe and their current status show that we have an incredible opportunity to integrate these species into very large areas of the European landscape. In many areas we may well be able to restore the full assemblage of species that have been found on the continent for the last few millennia. In some few areas this may occur in areas where there has been little human modification of habitat and where there is minimal direct influence by humans on the species. However, these areas will be the exception. As we have seen most of these species are tolerant to many forms of human activity. In principle there are very few parts of the continent where at least some of the large herbivores and carnivores will not be able to live. This implies that wolves, bears, lynx, bison, moose, red deer, roe deer, ibex, chamois, wild boar and other species can look forward to rather wide distributions in the coming decades. The fact that this conservation will be occurring in multi-use landscapes implies that all trophic levels and interactions will be, to some extent, influenced by humans, often in radical ways. Despite this modification there is a huge potential for a diversity of ecological processes to resume, including predation and scavenging, albeit in modified ways.

In other words, even if “wilderness” is unattainable there is a huge scope for increasing the amount of “wild” in most parts of the European landscape. This conservation view is best termed the “coexistence” approach as it seeks to integrate wildlife and humans in a shared landscape. Its focus on achievable “wildness”, rather than unobtainable “wilderness”, allows for a much more optimistic view of conservation, where every small recovery can be viewed as a success, rather than lamenting how much it falls short of some ideal (Kirby 2009; Marris 2011). A wolf raising pups in a Spanish agricultural plain is a triumph for coexistence as it shows the dramatic return of a degree of wildness to an otherwise heavily domesticated landscape, even if the functionality of the system is as far from wilderness as you could ever imagine. Having wild animals back in more parts of the landscape will also secure a far greater degree of long term viability (for example by increasing connectivity) than would be achieved from having some few very special wilderness areas, even if they could be obtained. Conserving large carnivores only in some small “wilderness” areas is simply impossible (i.e. in a land sparing approach sensu Phalan et al. 2011) because of their spatial needs (Linnell and Boitani 2012).

The coexistence approach represents many challenges as it does increase the area of interface between humans and wildlife, which potentially opens for more conflicts (Gordon 2009; Linnell 2013). However, the approach also opens for humans to enter into mindful and interactive relationships with the wildlife and allows them to mitigate or react to these issues, and find some form of dynamic and active relationship with the species that share their landscapes. For many cases this relationship may require re-adopting some traditional practices (for example shepherding methods), but it will also require adopting many new and innovative practices such as electric fences and green bridges. While the coexistence approach is in many ways trying to take advantage of changing situations in Europe (see Chap. 1) it has nothing retrospective about it, which makes it stand out from many interpretations of “rewilding” (where the “re” suffix implicitly suggests a retrospective component). Rather it is a future orientated approach that seeks to build a sustainable relationship with wildlife in shared landscapes. This has rarely been achieved before in our history, and certainly has not been attempted on a continental scale in modern times, with all the pressures that our modern society is placing on the land. It will be an essentially hands on approach, requiring a lot of adaptive management as it seeks to find a way forward that can adjust to the ecological and societal dynamics of the human and non-human actors that are trying to share the same landscapes.

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