I was trying to keep pace with Mario Cipollone as he hustled up a steep trail in the central Apennines of Italy. We were heading through a cold June rain toward an abandoned shepherd’s cabin in the Monte Genzana Reserve. Fallen beech leaves made a tawny carpet as we crossed a wooded ridge at 4,000 feet. Occasional wolf scat on the trailside provided evidence that these rugged hills were home to more than just birds and squirrels.
The 38-year-old conservationist, his hair cropped as short as a Special Forces soldier’s, scanned the dripping forest for something he thought important for me to see. “There!” he said, pointing toward a tree with a familiar look. “Apple! See how our volunteers have pruned it?”
The gnarled trunk was a relic from the time when these hills were cultivated by Italian farmers, before they abandoned their fields at the end of the Second World War. Volunteers under Cipollone’s guidance had removed the dead wood and opened the tree to the light in order to stimulate a return of fruit—not for the markets in nearby villages, but for the bellies of one of the region’s most notorious residents: the rare Marsican brown bear.
Cipollone and his co-worker Angela Tavone, who joined us on the hike, specialize in helping abandoned agricultural landscapes revert back to nature. As human inhabitants have left this part of L’Aquila, big animals, including the Marsican bear, have nosed their way back onto the abandoned farmlands and orchards. “Rewilders” such as Cipollone and Tavone are helping smooth their return.
“We don’t talk about these apples a lot,” Cipollone confessed with a sheepish grin. “Rewilders aren’t supposed to be pruning trees.”
Wildlife managers back in my home of Montana would be appalled by the idea of caring for fruit trees in order to feed bears. I once bumped into a U.S. Forest Service ranger as she left an abandoned apple orchard with a backpack stuffed full of fruit, determined to keep the crop away from the bears. Bears in “wild” places such as Montana, the standard environmental line goes, should be eating “wild” foods. None of the 7,000 varieties of apples grown across the world was cultivated to nourish them.
But if you are a 400-pound Marsican brown bear and fewer than 60 of you are left on the planet, what you are eating is much less important than whether you are eating enough of it. According to Cipollone and Tavone, pruning these apple trees provides the fragile population of Marsican bears some valuable extra calories. If the bears could be steered clear of the chickens, beehives, and deadly car traffic in the valley bottoms, Cipollone and Tavone’s rewilding work would be a heck of a lot easier.
The pruning near the shepherd’s hut is a sign of a dramatic shift in environmental thinking. New conservation practices are causing old conceptual lines to blur, and as human and nonhuman lives become more entangled, conservation purists are being forced to give ground. Preserving “the wild” no longer means just setting land aside and leaving animals alone. It means finding ways to nurture the fragments of wildness that remain, through interventions that previously would have been considered heretical.
Cipollone grew up in the Italian countryside, where he spent hours walking in the woods looking for wildlife. Thinking that he was encouraging the boy’s interests, a farmer taught Cipollone how to build a snare. When he came home one day to find a neighbor’s cat looking back at him from his trap, he swore off harming animals for good.
The more he explored the surrounding hills, the more he realized that the Apennines harbored something special. Though depleted by centuries of hunting, populations of big animals such as wolves, wild boar, and the goatlike chamois somehow clung on in the region’s more remote corners. As the farming economy faded and the forests began to grow back, Cipollone realized that wildlife might be a key to the region’s revitalization; in 2012, he co-founded a conservation association, Salviamo l’Orso, to address what he considered the “cultural emergency” created by threats to the region’s iconic bears.
Ursus arctos marsicanus is one of the rarest types of brown bear around. Its population has never climbed much above 60 since people started paying attention to it nearly a century ago. These unusual bears live at the geographical center of Italy, a country of 60 million human inhabitants, and during several thousand years of isolation—their nearest current neighbors are more than 400 impassable miles north—they developed a distinctive lower jaw for breaking open the nuts that form a large part of their diet. As brown bears go, they are surprisingly mild-mannered.
When sentiments about conservation began to awaken at the beginning of the 20th century, Italy was among the first European countries to provide protection for its charismatic fauna. In 1922, the government started setting aside land in Abruzzo, which eventually grew into the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise. The idea that you could see a brown bear just a couple of hours after eating breakfast in Rome’s Piazza Navona quickly became a source of national pride.
Tavone grew up in Bojano, a town of 8,000 just beyond the southern extent of the bear’s range. She remembers the despair she felt when, as a volunteer in the park in her early 20s, news would filter through of another bear poisoned or shot by local farmers for “threatening their livelihood” after exiting the park. Her work now is focused on developing “coexistence corridors” that pass through the farms and villages separating the different protected areas in the region.
Much of this involves relatively low-tech fixes to landscapes occupied by both bears and people. Cement water tanks used by sheep have been given exit ramps or covered with thick metal grates, after several bears drowned in the smooth-sided containers. Optical devices installed along the road to Pettorano sul Gizio emit a high-pitched sound when illuminated by car headlights, to warn bears about traffic at night. To calm fragile human nerves, the clothing company Patagonia has funded electric fences around local beehives.
Understandably, not everyone is excited about an Italian version of a grizzly bear showing up in their backyard, and a team of carefully selected “bear ambassadors” works hard to convince locals of the value of their polarizing neighbor. Tavone deploys a natural warmth to convince residents that a healthy population of bears is in their long-term interest. At dinner one night, she and Cipollone went out of their way to make small talk with a restaurant owner about the seasonal harvest of wild mushrooms. The stone-faced proprietario was a common sight in the woods, seeking delicate fungi for his menu. He was also known to be furious at the new restrictions on firewood-gathering being enforced in the reserve to protect the bears.
Even a quick visit to the area around the Monte Genzana Reserve makes clear how all sides here are working out new ways of existing. Locals need assistance keeping the bears out of their apiaries and chicken houses. Bears need help crossing the roads and safely finding food. In this part of the Apennines, you can’t simply keep humans and wild nature separate. If bear numbers are to increase, humans and bears are going to have to learn how to politely interact.
Midway through our hike, near the top of a trail, Tavone and Cipollone stooped down in front of a large pile of dark scat. A silence settled over us as we took in the fact that a bear had recently passed this way.
Poking at the ordure with a stick, Cipollone pointed out the beech mast and berries on which the bear had fed. He used two twigs to bring a piece of scat up toward his nose. The digestive system of the bear never does a very thorough job on the berries, he explained, as he inhaled the faintly fruity aroma.
“It’s like a fine wine,” he said with pride. A healthy pile of scat meant that at least one bear was thriving.
Rewilding is not just about saving charismatic animals, as Wouter Helmer, a co-founder of the Netherlands-based Rewilding Europe, is eager to point out. To him, this practice, which developed in response to theories about the harms of fragmented habitats, is as much about restoring natural processes as it is about saving wolves and bears.
Helmer views wild nature through a characteristically Dutch lens of free-flowing rivers, sedimentation, and floods. “Landscape should surprise you,” he says. “Give nature the tools to express itself.” The underlying systems deserve free rein as much as the creatures that pad across their surface.
But Helmer admits that restoring natural processes sometimes requires a heavy human hand. Permanently removing selected dikes in the Netherlands so that rivers can flood, for example, can mean weeks of earth-moving using heavy machinery. Even then, nature is not always left entirely to its own devices. In one case, a municipality wanting to rewild a river struck an agreement that allows a brick-making company to come back in 10 years to dig clay out of the new floodplain.
If these human-manipulated landscapes really count as rewilded, then wild no longer means what it did when conservationists such as Aldo Leopold first championed the idea in the 1930s. It is no longer a synonym for untouched. An uninterrupted lineage connecting rivers and the animals walking their banks to the evolutionary dynamics of the Pleistocene no longer exists. But thanks in part to Helmer’s organization, there is a resurgence of interest in restoring wildness across Europe. This new view values ecological systems acting as much as possible outside of human control, even if they’re not historically pure.
A few hundred miles away from Rewilding Europe’s Dutch headquarters, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree are two decades into a conservation experiment at Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex. This highly tamed agricultural belt south of London might seem too heavily managed to support anything wild, and the experiment is riven with questions about whether Knepp’s land can ever really reach that mark: Conservation purists point out that humans have reshaped the land substantially through farming since medieval kings hunted Knepp’s woods. But Burrell and Tree don’t care about the purists.
As Tree describes in her book Wilding, the heavy clay soil of Knepp, Burrell’s family land, was never very well suited for an arable farm. There was a reason the local Sussex dialect possessed 30 different words for mud. Inspired by a site they visited in the Netherlands, Burrell and Tree wondered if allowing the estate to rewild would offer them a viable economic future.
With the estate’s dairy herd and tractors sold, the sound of diesel engines and milking machines quickly gave way to the calls of turtle doves, nightingales, and woodlarks. Uncommon species such as peregrine falcons, Bechstein’s bats, and purple emperor butterflies showed up at Knepp in numbers that confounded even the most optimistic rewilder. A black stork, whose summer sightings in the United Kingdom can be counted on one hand, startled everyone by making an extended stopover. On warm summer evenings, the fields and hedgerows hum with new insect life.
Like the rewilders in the Apennines, Burrell and Tree provided constant nudges to help nature along. A river was recontoured, red deer and Exmoor ponies were reintroduced to pare back vegetation, and a flock of white storks was temporarily penned on the land to encourage their migrating brethren to stop and breed. (That experiment bore fruit in 2019, when a pair of storks laid eggs on English soil for the first time since the Middle Ages.) Around a suite of wildlife successes, Burrell and Tree have carefully built an income stream from ecotourism and wild-range meats.
Burrell, the chair of Rewilding Britain, takes pains to point out that they are not restoring some vision of pristine nature. The land, surrounded by roads and within earshot of the Gatwick Airport flightpath, will never match the traditional conception of unmanaged wilderness. Many of the herbivores grazing the mixed scrub are tough domesticates standing in as surrogates for extinct species. Exmoor ponies approximate the tarpan. Old English longhorn cattle provide ecological services once offered by long-dead aurochs. And although wild boar have been making a comeback across southern England, hardy domestic Tamworth pigs take responsibility for tilling the forest floor here. The European bison that have been reintroduced to some parts of the continent would be too unpredictable for the dogs that locals walk on Knepp’s public footpaths.
Knepp will never be Yellowstone. The human role in shaping the system remains evident throughout. The landscape offers an imperfect match for the preagricultural ecosystem. It is populated by an odd mix of proxies, holdouts, and returning pioneers.
But in important ways, it’s good enough. To a nature lover’s eye, it is impressively wild. The animals are finding their own way and shaping the landscape as they know best. Nature is returning, albeit in a careful compromise with landholders, who are slowly learning when to push and when to hold back. Year by year, the pendulum of influence is swinging back in nature’s favor.
Back home in Montana, I wondered what those living on some of North America’s biggest landscapes have to learn from bears in the Apennines and pigs in rural Sussex. In Big Sky Country, the people tend to be scarcer and the animals bigger and more numerous than in Western Europe. In some parts of the state, you can walk for days without crossing a road. Do the management puzzles so clearly evident in Europe have any place here? And if compromises are needed even in Montana, what is left of the wild at all?
For those used to the scale of European landscapes, the prairie around the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge looks endless. Crenelated badlands yield to eroded gullies that run in crooked lines toward the Missouri River. Sagebrush steppes are cracked by muddy coulees hiding pines where the spring snow lingers. In the valley bottoms, cottonwoods descended from the trees that fueled the settlers’ paddle steamers provide cover for elk, deer, and pronghorn antelope. This expansive region surrounding the Charlie Russell is the focus of one of the most ambitious restoration projects in modern America.
Although the entire county of West Sussex could fit nearly 100 times in just the eastern half of Montana, Beth Saboe and her co-workers at the American Prairie Reserve want more space. The reserve already owns land or grazing rights to more than 400,000 acres. But the bison being brought back to America’s Great Plains by the organization need plenty of room.
At the same time as the human population in the region is decreasing, private, state, and federal lands host small but steadily growing herds of bison. The American Prairie Reserve, along with the Fort Peck, Blackfeet, and Fort Belknap tribal reservations, is home to genetically pure wild bison—the gold standard in bison conservation. These animals, which make up only a tiny fraction of the nearly half million bison now in the United States, have been carefully sourced from Canada and, in a new arrangement between the federal government and the tribes, Yellowstone National Park.
The American Prairie Reserve’s animals are as authentic as bison can get from a genetic standpoint. But officially, they are still not wild animals. “In the state of Montana,” Saboe points out, “bison are livestock.” As livestock, privately owned bison in Montana are governed by a detailed set of rules about their grazing and movement. It is a compromise that those working at the American Prairie Reserve accept.
Wild bison are not supposed to be contained by fences, though. When they are, they become a different animal. “The species Bison bison is secure,” Jim Bailey, a retired wildlife-biology professor and the founder of the Montana Wild Bison Restoration Coalition, told me. “The threat is domestication.” What Bailey worries about most is the decay of the bison genome. When bison’s movement is restricted, their instincts dull and, over time, the genes belonging to good migrators are weeded out. Bailey holds the original ideal of wildness high. A true rewilding of the prairie would require much more freedom for bison and much less management by people.
The problem is, even in a state as large as Montana, the reality on the ground does not permit that. The American Prairie Reserve knows this and is focusing on keeping bison as wild as possible while being a good neighbor to the surrounding ranchers. Through the Wild Sky program, the reserve pays local ranchers who meet certain habitat and wildlife criteria a bonus on their beef sales. To make it all work, the reserve’s managers keep the bison fences strong and rotate their animals through grazing pastures, just as their neighbors do with their cattle.
The American Prairie Reserve’s partial retreat from conservation’s traditional separation of humans and nature—a bedrock principle of conservation for most of the past century—is not just an accommodation. It is also consistent with an older view of how to treat wildlife, a view once prevalent in this part of the world. The Blackfeet, Crow, and Assiniboine people who populated these plains thought of humans and wildlife as two forces on a continuous plane; each played a vital role in helping the other survive and flourish. There was no need for enforced separation. In return for the meats and skins they received, people helped wildlife thrive through their prayers, the fires they set, and their careful harvesting practices.
This older insight finds a surprising resonance with modern rewilding philosophy. From the Italian Apennines to Montana’s high prairie, the lines between the lives of people and the lives of wildlife are becoming less well defined than they were during the conservation era of the 20th century. Rewilders such as Cipollone and Tavone prune trees. Burrell and Tree take excess deer off their land. The American Prairie Reserve shepherds its bison seasonally across the pasture. As rewilders, they all look for ways to progressively disentangle human and wildlife, while conceding that the disentangling may never again be complete.
Not long after my conversation with Saboe, I found myself staring at a huge bull bison standing by the side of a gravel road inside the fences of the National Bison Range. The bison looked hard at me while its jaws worked furiously on a mouthful of grasses. The thick mat of curly brown hair on its forehead was powdered by a summer dust. I didn’t know for certain how this particular bison stacked up genetically. I did know that it doesn’t roam completely free. I also knew that I risked a potentially dangerous encounter if I stepped out of the car to try to get a closer look. I had heard enough stories about errant tourists in Yellowstone to know not to push my luck.
Even from my safe distance, I couldn’t help but value this lingering encounter. The wild and the managed appeared to coexist easily in this huge mountain of fur and flesh. There was something to learn from that. As conservation philosophies battle over the question of how much human influence is too much, the animals at the center of this debate simply go about their business. The bull bison appeared quite happy to simply stand there and eat.