Issue of the Week: The Reintroduction of Wildlife

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Centuries of human development and utilization have either removed species from their natural habitats or reduced multiple wildlife populations. As more threatened species surfaced, conservationists explored effective ways to reestablish populations. One strategy that is used is reintroduction. These plans start by introducing a small number of a species in to an area and work to ensure that the numbers multiply.

Reintroduction has been used throughout history as a way to restore populations to areas that have lost wildlife for various reasons. It was widely used at the turn of the 20th century after many species were displaced from much of their range. Early conservationist reintroduced white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and black bears, and there are now an abundance of these and other species, proving that reintroduction can be successful.

The process, however, is not an easy one.  Many potential problems can occur during reintroduction and some animals require constant monitoring to ensure success.  The first few months after an animal is released are crucial to its survival.

These animals are either raised in a controlled environment and released to their natural habitat or relocated from an overpopulated area to one where the species once frequented. A majority of the animals being reintroduced are bred in captivity at zoos or private farms. This makes them more susceptible to starvation and disease. Animals in captivity do not usually have the natural instincts needed for success in the wild. Some do not possess the skills needed to find food and can have a lack of fear towards humans, which creates major disadvantages.

A second issue reintroduced species face is predation.  Reintroduced animals not accustomed to life in their new habitat are more vulnerable to predators. Also, animals that are being relocated may not have experience with a certain predator. Often conservation teams have to control predators in order to assure that the reintroduced animals have a chance to survive and thrive in their new habitat.

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Currently, a project attempting to reintroduce big horn sheep in to the Santa Catalina Mountains is having a similar issue with predation. In November, a herd of 31 sheep were shipped in from a wildlife reserve, but within weeks the native mountain lion had already killed two. These mountain lions were shot on site by Arizona Game and Fish.  Another was tracked and killed after a collared sheep was found dead due to another animal attack. Arizona Fish and Game stated that the mountain lion hunting policy will remain in effect until big horns are thriving in the area.

This strategy, though upsetting to some, is not uncommon. Many conservation organizations examine the complex predator-prey relationship and view predator population control as an effective strategy. Others, however, view it as solving a problem by creating another problem.  Sandy Bahr, the director of the Sierra Club in Arizona, is afraid this dire need to preserve big horn sheep in the region, will only lead to the demise of the regions native mountain lion population.

In modern times reintroductions are increasingly complicated. There are many factors to consider before a plan can be implemented. And there will always be obstacles to face when implementing a reintroduction plan. However, as more animals are reintroduced, like the new herd of 30 big horn sheep set to be introduced into the Santa Catalina Mountains next year, more can be learned and adjustments can be made. As conservationists, it is our responsibility to attempt restoration of wildlife where ever possible and information gained from projects, such as the big horn reintroduction, will increase our ability to create effective conservation strategies.

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news. 

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