The Believers

Josh Donlan: Jurassic Park Ecologist

MISSION // BRING BACK THE BEASTS

CHEETAHS, MAMMOTHS, AND OTHER LARGE FAUNA once roamed North America, but they disappeared at about the same time humans showed up on the continent. Now, conservationist and Cornell Ph.D. candidate Josh Donlan wants to re-wild the continent—yes, this continent—with their related megaspecies. The 32-year-old former ski-and-climbing bum admits the idea might sound crazy, but he's not advocating the release of lions—yet. The plan, unveiled in August in the journal Nature and backed by ecology luminaries like Michael Soulé, Paul Martin, and James Estes, is already under way, with the goal of introducing 100-pound Bolsón tortoises on Ted Turner's New Mexico ranches in 2006. Phases two and three are far more ambitious: establishing cheetahs, elephants, and lions on private property, then importing elephants and large carnivores to "ecological history parks" on the Great Plains. Not surprisingly, logistical obstacles like federal and local approval are daunting, and public opinion runs the gamut. "I've had people tell me, 'I'll quit my corporate job and come work for you,' " says Donlan. "And others say, 'If I see a free-range elephant on this continent, it'll get an ass full of buckshot, and I'll kill you, too.' "

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