The Opposite of Apocalypse

Conservationists are restoring a living tortoise fossil to its prehistoric range. Can we recreate nature?
Small bolson tortoise at Bolsón de Mapimí
Myles Traphagen

Small bolson tortoise at Bolsón de Mapimí

Before the railroad, there were shepherds and goatherds, and, on the better country, ranchers — Spanish colonists who, with the coming of cool weather each fall, manned signal fires on the highest summits to warn of Comanche and Kiowa raiding parties. Earlier still were the conquistadores, who despite their Iberian horses feared the hardpan playas, empty of water, wood, or forage, and who named one dreaded crossing — the site of the Armendaris Ranch today — the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of the Dead Man. On one Spanish advance across the Jornada, thirty women and children died from thirst and exposure.

Apache and Uto-Aztecan tribes, salt traders and gathererhunters whose arrowheads turn up in the white loam of the desert even today, did not linger in the shadowless basins, but lived instead in canyons or along distant rivers. They consumed the desert; they ate tortoises. So did their antecedents, hundreds of thousands of people through 10,000 years of civilization, dozens of cultures rising, falling, blending together back in time until that moment when the first far-faring human hunter stooped to the easy meal of one bolson tortoise, motionless on the ground, forelegs covering its eyes.

Today the bolson tortoise exists in 1 percent or less of its prehistoric range. Though some scientists believe climate change caused the collapse of the megafauna, the timing, pattern of retreat, history, and susceptibility of the tortoise all suggest human-driven extirpation. And one piece of evidence towers above the others: we’re still doing it. “Perhaps the best modern analogue to human invasion of the New World is our current exploitation of the oceans,” wrote David Morafka, then the world’s leading bolson tortoise expert, in 1988. “Just as on land, large sea turtles have not been exempt; their eggs are removed from shore nests while adults are harpooned at sea.”

The miracle is not that the tortoise has disappeared, but that it has survived at all.

The past is a bittersweet destination. The almost magical plenitude is a pleasure to dwell in, but there is tragedy in the knowledge that it could not, did not, hold. Still, it is instructive, revealing the living world as an echo and a shadow of what came before. We wake up and go to work and plan camping holidays and drop the kids off at the beach, in what I’ve come to think of as a Ten-Percent World. Is it the world in which we want to live?

Joe Truett, sitting with me in the shade of an elm tree, doesn’t see the answer as obvious. He’s not a fan of rewilding’s language of loss, which labels North America “a continent of ghosts” — which sees a wilderness that is “incomplete” and “impoverished,” a nature that “may not be natural at all.”6Of the fourteen people who attended the Ladder Ranch workshop, Truett and Steve Dobrott were the only two who did not put their names to the Pleistocene rewilding proposal, preferring the role of observers. One biologist I spoke to — an admirer of the Pleistocene rewilding concept — said he often pictures the Ladder Ranch Twelve as conservation science’s version of Ken Kesey’s transgressive 1960s “magic bus,” dubbed furthur (a cross between “future” and “further”). I now imagine a bus with the word bewilding in the destination display. He acknowledges that, for example, most of the North American range, including the Chihuahuan Desert, can now be summed up as a straight-line energy flow: uniform stands of grass being eaten by cows that are eaten by humans. The few side chains — a modest colony of prairie dogs; coyotes eating mice and jackrabbits — only serve to hint at a web of life that has been rendered threadbare. But a grassland, says Truett, still looks like a grassland — still is a grassland. Grass eaten by cows eaten by humans remains an ecosystem. To be precise, it is an ecosystem that has far fewer species and ecological interactions than it might. It is also, beyond any doubt, a product of human choice.

One lesson of ecological history is uncomfortably clear: we can survive — thrive, even — in a greatly reduced state of nature. Winnipeg and Kansas City live without the bison herds that once ran so strong their migration paths are still visible from the air; Chicago and Toronto do not weep for the days when you could fish the Great Lakes by bashing at the surface of the water with an axe handle; Vancouver and Seattle fail to remember their bays’ humpback whales. For decades, there were almost no grey wolves, grizzly bears, or eagles in the Lower Forty-Eight, and modern recovery projects have brought them back to just a fraction of their former ranges. How low can we go? A Five-Percent World? A One-Percent World? No one can say, but this much I know: the forests and the plains and the sea would still be beautiful. Haunting.

What we now call the sixth extinction is the continuation of a pattern more than 10,000 years old in North America, and far older worldwide. Nothing yet has compelled our species to make the sacrifices necessary for us to live with a more varied and abundant nature. The fact that ancient Greek texts and the founding stories of indigenous peoples warn against environmental depletion does not suggest that those alarms were premature. Rather, it hints at the scale of past ecological wealth. To spend it down has required a spree measured in millennia, at the end of which we have forgotten where we started.

I came to the tortoise to remember, but memory, like Farley Mowat’s “data,” is not a blue-chip commodity in today’s market. I find myself harrying Truett to justify the bolson tortoise project in terms that might make sense to a policy- maker with a dozen stakeholders dialing in for a conference call. Truett can do this. The bolson tortoise reintroduction can test many things in the name of science, he says. The animals’ success or failure in the northern Chihuahuan Desert may help answer vexing questions about the roles of climate change and human invasion in the disappearance of the continent’s megafauna. It should make a useful contribution to the debate about whether other species might be fruitfully introduced as proxies for vanished Pleistocene fauna, such as African lions for vanished American lions. What scales of time and space do we apply to species restoration? Should we look beyond our traditional, arbitrary baseline, scrawled at the instant Christopher Columbus sighted his New World?7This position may be best represented in a 1963 report that formed the basis of the modern parks philosophy in the US: “As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.” A 1991 proposal to reintroduce bolson tortoises to Big Bend National Park in western Texas, spearheaded by Mexican biologist Gustavo Aguirre León, was rejected on these grounds. The tortoise, said the US National Park Service, had been prodigal too long. How long does a species need to be absent before it is considered alien?

But Truett prefers to think in terms of species themselves, and from this perspective the great contribution of the bolson tortoise is its burrow. Underground access is precious to survival in the Chihuahuan Desert, and no other creature bores so great a hole as the tortoise. Their burrows plunge two metres into the earth and often extend to the length of a stretch limousine; inside, the temperature stays relatively steady through the extremes of summer wildfire and clear, cold nights beneath the picked-out winter stars. One study found 362 species making use of tortoise excavations; at Armendaris, burrowing owls8An endangered species in Canada; it rarely digs its own holes. have already moved in, along with box turtles and at least one skunk. The mouth of the burrow — the bomb crater — may also contain nutrient- rich soil dredged up from the depths. A study of gopher tortoise burrows revealed that mounds used by tortoises for years exhibited much greater plant diversity than the surrounding area. The result is a more varied landscape, with more niches to be filled by more species. In the language of biology, this represents a net increase in species interactions, the functional fabric of nature; in other words, a slow but steady drift toward plenitude, an opposite to apocalypse.

To the west of us, a small herd of pronghorn antelope leaps in place without visiblereason. On the distant Fra Cristobal Range, I’ve been told, cougars once again hunt desert bighorn sheep. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the whip snake we spotted at the road’s edge, its body sinuous as a meandering stream, and of course I have not forgotten the prehistoric tortoises. Truett’s eyes, which have been searching the sky for the aplomado falcon (reintroduced to the American Southwest after an absence of half a century), now fix on a clutch of bison filing in from the desert. There is something about that, says Truett. Why do so many of us prefer to see bison — the wildness never quite bred out of them — over cattle? Why do we dream of seeing the great, teeming beasts of Africa? Why is a passage through deep wilderness still a life-list experience for many people, while a trip to the zoo is at best a roadside attraction? “I think we have hard-wired tendencies deep within our psyches, responses we don’t know how to evaluate,” says Truett. “We assume that because they’re not measured, they don’t exist.”

But is it better, I persist. There must be one more reason, one final, overlooked truth with which I can declare that a simplified, channelized world is mere survival — that it is quantitatively and qualitatively better, smarter, richer to live with more species than less, more variety than less, more abundance than less. I have begun to irritate Truett.

“I like it,” he says.

I laugh. It isn’t said so plainly often enough.

By God, I like it, too.

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5 comment(s)

Jason AddyFebruary 16, 2009 10:16 EST

Reading this article, like reading Sea of Slaughter, makes me cross my fingers and hope that we kill ourselves off completely and as quickly as possible and so start the process again: the rise of a new powerful killer that will most assuredly drive the future Earth to the brink. Its not just us humans that have produced "data" showing that we will populate and consume until there are no resources left but almost every species will do this if left unchecked by a rich web of life, one that includes a feedback for overconsumption. Our only feedback looks like the depletion of the Planets full catalogue of life.

J.B. MacKinnon has written a superb story that gives some hope for the Planets future but perhaps not ours.

Tom F.February 16, 2009 13:08 EST

This line summarized our dilemma for me: “It is crucial for the restoration of this ecosystem that [the] public are able to visualize previous states of their local ecosystems.” Very few of us, as mobile as we are, live out our lives observing and interacting with the same ecosystem — we aren't locals anywhere anymore. So we all suffer from Dr. Pauly's shifting baselines: now our scope is narrowed to the distance of keyboard and monitor, our memories strain back to last week's episode, and our ire is raised only when Facebook changes its layout.

????July 14, 2009 02:25 EST

"Then, about 10,000 years ago, late in the Pleistocene epoch, they disappeared..."

Excuse me, but where did you get these "facts"?..

????July 21, 2009 01:38 EST

Actually Norman Myers is not that good....really....read his latest works.

AnonymousDecember 27, 2011 10:37 EST

Thank-you.
I live at the northern boundary of the Chihuahan Dest ecosystem in the Tularosa Basin. I don\'t know if your turtles migrate this far, a few have shown up in my back yard to hibernate aand the ones around here do migrate, moving some thirty miles per day, by one account. along with rattlesnakes and turantiallas. Their shells and eyes are, yes, cosmic.
The playa must have filled for a while in the monsoon seasons of 2006 and 2008. Hope that revitalized them. But desert climate is demanding of the \"jewel.\"

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