Of late, there has been a trend among some with ecological and romantic flights of fancy. They call it “rewilding.” Put wolves and beavers and moose in the Scottish Highlands and let them roam. Turn out recreated aurochs onto the great plains and marshland of the Netherlands. Or maybe clone the woolly mammoth and let it thunder across the taiga again.
Some wags have even suggested stocking the American west with the modern maned lion of Africa. As ersatz as the puny leo might be compared the great atrox lion, I don’t think many cattlemen would approve.
Life in the Anthropocene is oddly disconcerting. Our species has risen to its highest level of technological advancement. We’ve become terrestrial deities in a world we barely understand and from which we become more and more alienated from its life processes. We think it is moral to attack indigenous seal hunters in Canada but don’t think the mass producing of extreme brachycephaly in the dogs we claim to love is even worth discussing.
Simply put, we are a mess.
But I’ve often wondered in all these conversation about rewilding, why we don’t we try something a bit easier than cloned mammoths and savage lions?
The maned wolf is big wild dog native to South America, and although it now roams the grasslands of Brazil and a few adjacent countries, it first appeared in the fossil record in the American Southwest. Its fossilized remains come from the Blancan in what is now New Mexico and Arizona.
Much has been made about the Mexican wolves that have been introduced to that country, but maned wolves were there long before the true wolves and coyotes roamed the canyons and mountains. There were there among the last of the borophagine dogs and the running dog-like hyena. The ancestor of the modern wolf and coyote was a puny little jackal thing that roamed among the big dogs and the hyenas and the big-fanged cats as they tore into their kills.
The big bad bone-crushers and big-toothed cats are all gone. All we can do is search around for things that were roughly contemporary with that bestiary. The best I can come up with is the maned wolf.
And the maned wolf has a lot going for it. It’s called “wolf,” because European imaginations were so limited when it came to describing this long-legged beast of the grasslands. It actually feeds much more like a red fox, attacking small prey in the open expanses of grass and nibbling away at fruit. It doesn’t pack up at all. It just goes around on stilt legs, hunting like the diminutive Reynard at the edges of humanity’s conquest.
In a land of chicken houses, it wouldn’t be too welcome, but in a land of open range, it wouldn’t be too much trouble. It would be a curiosity to see the red coyote on black stilts slinking along some arid grassland, pouncing upon kangaroo rats and pack rats that scurry along in range of its ears.
I don’t how it would fare in a sea of coyotes. Indeed, it is the dogs of that lineage that came to rule this continent. Different waves of Eurasian wolf species dominated the maned wolf and its kin in North America, and if many of these odd North American canids hadn’t wandered in South America, they would have been lost entirely.
South America has held onto these lineages, like a canid version of Jurassic Park, and if we are to play around with this rewilding concept a bit, I bet we could find a place to restore a few pairs of maned wolves.
I say this tongue-in-cheek, because I know fully well this will never happen. It’s not going to capture the imagination of the most romantic rewilders. It’s not a particularly fell beast like a lion or a recreated aurochs.
But if we really believe in all this rewilding stuff, why the heck not?
It is true that climate has changed since the last time maned wolves roamed the Southwest, but I am sure we can find areas that could hold them well. We might have to go to Texas, and Texas is already home to all sorts of animals that belong in tropical and semitropical savannas, like blackbuck and nilgai. I’m sure could find a good place there to set out some true North American “wolves.”
Most rewilding theories and postulates are nothing but flights of fancy, and I’m happy to indulge myself here. This isn’t going to happen, and if you push me a bit, I’m going to say this is silly.
But maybe the roar-bark of lobo-guará will someday rise among the coyote yodels on some Southwestern twilight. The big red coyote on stilts will become a legend as the great cattle and sheep-killing wolves once did. A beast from North America’s deep past now roams the backcountry, no longer dead but on the prowl.