Rewilding for Healthy Landscapes Webinar

CANA Foundation's Rewilding Webinar
Watch the “Rewilding for Healthy Landscapes” webinar and scroll down to read our highlights from the webinar with quotations from our expert panelists.

Thank you to everyone who attended our December 1st webinar “Rewilding for Healthy Landscapes” presented by our team at CANA Foundation in partnership with the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University.

We always work to feature different perspectives here at CANA, so we were particularly excited to have a special guest on this webinar, Wouter Helmer, Co-Founder of Rewilding Europe, who joined us LIVE from the Netherlands. Other esteemed panelists included:

Our webinar addressed what wild horses, biodiversity and open spaces have to do with healthy landscapes. Moderator Erin King-Sweeney, CANA’s former Executive Director, worked to help the audience understand how important preserving and rebuilding open spaces is to our physical health as well as climate health.

Our panelists addressed how wild horses, along with other species that are an integral part of the natural system, can play a role in helping to rebuild biodiversity and to preserving endangered species.

Watch the video above of this webinar and let us know what you want to see addressed in future series. Keep scrolling down to read key points by our panelists.

Wouter Helmer and Erin King-Sweeney
Erin King-Sweeney and Wouter Helmer

Some Highlights from our Panelists from the Webinar:

If we can do it in Europe, it would be even much easier on your continent. You have much more space than we have. As I said, talking about the wild horse­­–– it’s coming originally from the U.S., so it’s really part of your natural ecosystem. So even more than Europe, thousands of species in the U.S. are actually waiting for the horse, are dependent on the role of the horse in your ecosystem. So that’s what we’re now showing in Europe, but that could be even better shown in the U.S. in the near future.

So we have estimated that about 50% of European biodiversity is directly or indirectly related to large herbivores, among which wild horses are a very important one, maybe even more so in the U.S. as the horse originally comes from the U.S. So we’ve seen it in co-evolution with horses and cattle. Tens of thousands of species have found their place on our continent. And by releasing now, in Europe again, these large herbivores in areas like the Danube Delta, in Spain, Portugal, in the Bulgarian mountains, we bring back all this life, faster species related to those large herbivores on our continent. And it’s all coming out together in a fast growing movement of people that support these kind of actions.

Did you know that the federal government and the taxpayers of the United States of America are spending over 100 million dollars a year rounding up wild horses, putting them on transport mechanisms, putting them in in really inhumane and cruel holding pens? Having to feed them? Doesn’t it make sense for us, rather than spending that money and subjecting these horses to this horrifically inhumane treatment… Why can’t we just find lands where we can rewild while these horses, return them to their native habitat…. We don’t have to have the taxpayers paying the bill for that. And that put me on this extraordinary journey with Manda and with you, Erin, to educate policymakers about rewilding I learned a lesson when I was in Congress that nothing matters until the appropriations committee and I know my co panelists know this. Nothing matters until the Appropriations Committee of the Congress says it matters, because the Appropriations Committee pays the bills for everything. And I was an Appropriator. And so after leaving Congress, I spoke with Manda, and we were able to get the House Appropriations Committee on a unanimous bipartisan bill or amendment that talked about the importance and value of rewilding. Here was a congressman named Tom Cole from Oklahoma, pretty far to the right, and not always 100% on animal rights issues. And then there were members of Congress pretty far to the left, who were stalwarts on animal rights issues. We were able to get everybody to agree on an appropriations committee paragraph indicating the value and the priority of rewilding, and I’m very proud of that never would have happened without Manda Kalimian.

We can feel good about bipartisan consensus on animal welfare issues, particularly with respect to horses. My experience in 16 years in the House of Representatives was that there were very few issues which really did facilitate the crossing of the aisle, and things like tax cuts, Erin, as you know, on ideological issues, war and peace––there was some pretty stark divides. There were a few bridges across that center aisle, and animal welfare was one of them... In fact, there’s a congressional Animal Protection Caucus, it has about 120 members on both sides of the aisle. And that’s an area where Democrats and Republicans can work together. There will also be a partner with Joe Biden... I do feel actually good about the fact that we can get bipartisan consensus and consensus between Congress and the White House over the next several years.

We kind of have to level the playing field in terms of understanding, because a lot of scientific terms I’m going to use like zoonosis… zoonosis is zoonotic diseases–– diseases that are transmitted between humans and wildlife and back and forth between animals and humans. And about 60% of all diseases are considered zoonotic. And this causes literally, you know, billions of people that get ill every year and human death. And obviously, one of these zoonotic diseases is COVID-19. So is HIV. These are these diseases that come from one to the other, and how does this happen? How do these diseases come into existence? And it’s really the fact that wildlife is being taken from places where they live, and being brought into these urban environments and sold in these live markets, where one species is on top of another species, they merge, and therefore the diseases that each have merge into a new disease, which are these when this case was COVID-19. So you think about why is that happening?

One of the big problems is the wild is kind of gone. And, you know, we talked about rewilding, before this whole issue of how do we think about the wild? And how do we rewild some of those places? So for example, right now, you’ve got incredible degradation of these wild places with road building and mining and logging camps and other things. And what that’s doing is creating these opportunities for people to be even closer to nature. Some of these diseases now are being brought out. And then what happens is, as these all merge together, as wildlife is brought from its, you know, from its wild state, so to speak and brought to these urban environments, what happens is they shed diseases. They shed five times more diseases when they’re in cages in these wild markets than they do in the wild. And as they’re shedding those diseases, they’re merging with other animal diseases, and they’re being mutated. Unfortunately, what happens is you have these new diseases like COVID-19. 

But the hopeful note is really the work that we did 100 years ago to save the bison. And I look at the story of the horse, and I think about our work (with the bison). As people, you don’t realize there were 30 million buffalo in America. They were hunted down to less than 1000, and we bred them at the Bronx Zoo, working with other partners, Native American community, and at the time President Teddy Roosevelt. And what we ended up doing was we bred them and then returned them back to the wild, creating some of the first federal herds of wild bison, in essence “rewilding,” and bringing back the species that have almost been on the brink of extinction. So I always remember that story when we get into these moments of real concern, because I think there are examples out there and there have been many examples since of how man has been able to turn back from some of the worst things that they’ve done.

There was a study done in 35 countries that found that if open spaces and intact forests upstream were maintained, there was a 30% reduction in childhood waterborne diseases. So basically, by saving forests and open spaces, we actually were healthier. And that study really shows the importance of maintaining these open spaces of maintaining forests, because it’s important for our own sanitation or hygiene. And again, I am a huge New York booster, as I know Steve Israel is. And at the end of the day, what New York did, which was incredible 120 years ago, was to make sure that the open spaces in New York were held intact, so that we have some of the best drinking water in the country. And the fact is that most of our water is not even chlorinated because we don’t need to put chemicals into our water because it’s so clean. The bottom line is that was done because we maintained open spaces. And our research is also showing that we can save money by keeping these spaces open––by maintaining these forests, we can save money, and we can be healthier.

It starts with habitat and open spaces, as John was pointing out, and I think, implementing the President-Elect’s agenda, which includes the idea of 30 by 30, which is conserving 30% of the land and waters of the United States by 2030 is a great start to create, the natural environment that we need that promotes rewilding efforts overall. Having looked at habitat in the idea of open spaces, then we have to look at what we’re getting––at what the agencies can do in other areas, such as just wildlife management. And typically, and historically federal governments played an active role where they’re endangered species issues. And certainly there have been reintroductions of wolves, of black footed ferrets. There’s a reintroduction plan for grizzly bears. So there has been active management strategies to bring back in species that have been on the brink of extinction. But there are, beyond the Endangered Species Act, there are other partnerships that I think the federal agencies can do...

So whether it’s science, whether it’s landscape conservation, whether it’s wildlife management, science, or just law enforcement activities, there is a whole range of agenda items that federal agencies can undertake to contribute to the idea of rewilding and promote that on different levels.

William Perry Penley, who was the acting BLM director during the four year Trump term, really came out of the Mountain State’s legal foundation. It had a philosophy that public lands should be privatized. It really put the priority on commercial uses of our public lands and that led to this notion that wild horses and burros are exotics. They’re trespassers. They’re interlopers. And then they applied kind of cattlemen’s thinking to the management of wild horses. They talked about roundups, just like cattlemen talk about roundups of the animals. And they talk about range management, and they talk about herds. They forget about the individuals. They forget that horses have had a place on the North American continent for thousands of years. Of course, the Spanish reintroduced horses or introduced horses, some hundreds of years ago. But horses were part of North American landscapes for thousands and thousands of years, which CANA has really well detailed on its website. You know, I think we need a broad attitude change. We have to recognize the United States is the third most populous country in the world. I mean, a big gulf between one and two. And number three, China and India have more than a billion people. We have perhaps 330 million. We’re one of the five largest nations in the world by physical land area, and one of the remarkable things about our country is that one third of the country’s land area is held in public lands and many of the lands in the west are public lands. It’s the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, the national wildlife refuges, the National Park Service, Department defense lands––it adds up to 700 million acres.

Now, when you think about this, we have 330 million people in the U.S. And maybe we have something close to 100,000 horses and burros over vast expanses of public lands. And there are people who are saying. they’re overpopulated. This is a construct. And this is also because of the political competition that exists on our public lands where cattlemen want the forage. They want the water, and they consider the horses a problem and the burros a problem in that respect. The thing about these public lands, yes, there are multiple use places and venues, creationists and other wildlife enthusiasts enjoy it, along with fossil fuel production and mining and the like. But the balance has been tipped so far, in terms of commercial exploitation of our public lands, by the administration, and particularly the appointees of the Interior Department, which is the custodian of our public lands. We really need think more in a balanced way.

You know, wild horses and burros are part of the American ethos that are part of our Western landscapes. And we have Western landscapes, not just because they’re beautiful, but because they’re biotic communities. And we’re seeing grizzly bears and wolves and other animals reclaiming their range. Horses have actually been shrinking because the United States policy has been to eliminate their herds and to confine them to small in smaller areas, so when you and the CANA Foundation talk about rewilding, I think we’re talking about the full matrix of species in our Western ecosystems that are really the kind of embodiment of the North American continent and certainly, the United States.

And I hope that our Interior Secretary, our Deputy Secretary, our Fish and Wildlife Service Director, BLM director, are going to recognize the rightful place of wild horses and burros, reject the old economy, this notion of roundups and herds and range management and embrace technology. Yes, we can have population management, but through new economy methods like immunocontraception, and recognize that tremendous development and commerce is built around, keeping wildlife alive, protecting land, protecting the biotic community, and allowing people to enjoy the spaces from Teddy Roosevelt onwards. This has been part of the tonic of our societies to have our public lands and to enjoy them, but also recognize that the animals have their place, where we’re rejecting this 19th century mentality of destruction of wildlife as we make Western progress in the nation. No, we have to live with wildlife. We have to have coexistence and cohabitation. And that’s really the model. I hope the Biden administration brings.

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