11/23/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/22/2015 05:59 EST

Rewilding projects aim to turn back clock on environment

(Listen to Anik See's audio documentary about rewilding on CBC Radio's Ideas, starting at 9 p.m. on Monday Nov. 24.)

The human impact of centuries of destruction and manipulation of the landscape to extract resources and build communities is taking its toll on the planet, even in areas still considered "wild." However, a global movement known as "rewilding" is gaining traction, with the goal of returning areas to a more natural state.

"Rewilding is the act of making a place more wild again ... it's taking landscapes and somehow bringing back qualities of wildness that have been lost,” says J.B. MacKinnon, author of The Once and Future World: Nature as it was, as it is, as it could be.

 “We've lost these very healthy, abundant, resilient ecosystems we had in the past when ecosystems had all of their components and were in full operating condition,” says MacKinnon. “It’s absolutely critical that we do rewilding, preferably on a global scale. But I think it's also very important for ourselves.”

The question is, what does wild really mean?

One of the reasons we need rewilding, MacKinnon says, is because of “shifting baseline syndrome.” The notion of what is "wild" is often measured against previous reference points or baselines, which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of wildness.

For example, the state of the natural world that a 40-year old grew up with and uses as his or her reference point to define what is "wild" or "natural" is substantially different from the baseline of the next generation. In the period between those two generations, nature gets degraded further by human influence, but the younger generation views this degraded nature as still being "wild," because it's their reference point.

"Unlike traditional conservation," says MacKinnon, "rewilding recognizes that much of the world is going to be some kind of blend of the natural environment and the human environment, and that we can bring some of these wilder qualities back to the places that we live and work in."

The Netherlands, one of the world’s most densely-populated countries, is an example of a place that, after centuries of manipulation of the landscape by humans, has very little wild space left. But even there, where the culture has been one of conquering nature and reshaping the land, rewilding movements are succeeding in creating natural spaces.

The most notable - and controversial - is the Oostvaardersplassen (OVP), a 10,000 acre area about half an hour east of Amsterdam.

Situated on a manmade island, its several thousand red deer, semi-feral Konik horses and Heck cattle were introduced in the early 1980s. People are allowed to visit a few places on the area’s outskirts, but the rest is closed to everyone except rangers and the animals.

The area is rich in waterfowl and the grazing animals are not fed by people, but they cannot leave. The greatest criticism of the Oostvaardersplassen - which is managed by the Dutch Forestry Service - is that it is fenced in, leading some to refer to it as a zoo.

“It's not wildland,” says Mark Fisher, honorary research fellow at the Wildland Institute at Leeds University, and one of the Oostvaardersplassen’s critics, “because it's a very controlled situation ... it's not a landscape that those animals choose to live in themselves.”

The animals also lack natural predators, which Fisher says are an essential part of any complete ecosystem. But 30 years into the experiment, the Dutch Forestry Service says population levels of the large grazers seem to be managing themselves.

"It's a bold and imaginative step to take in the heart of Western Europe where so very much has been lost ecologically," MacKinnon says. "And hopefully it will inspire a chain of similar projects across the continent."

Even in a place as wilderness-rich as Canada, efforts to return areas to a more natural state exist and are demonstrating how effective these initiatives can be.

One of the largest projects is the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, or Y2Y. It attempts to create “wildlife corridors” between the Yukon and Yellowstone (including Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks).

The corridors form a continuous 3,200 km-long area so animals sharing the land with people have a way to migrate, breed and feed, among other things, without having to navigate human constructs such as highways and housing developments.

“Wild animals like bears, cougars, wolves, elk and lynx need breeding grounds where they mate, they need places where they can rear their young, they need different habitats at different times of year,” explains Karsten Heuer, president of Y2Y.

“What wildlife corridors do is connect all these habitat patches or islands that an animal needs to fulfill all parts of its life cycle," Heuer says. "Roads, farm lines, hunting zones, towns - all of those things fragment large blocks of habitat into smaller and smaller islands, and once those connections between those islands are lost, then the animals may not be able to meet all their needs on those islands and that's how things go extinct.”

Y2Y is funded through myriad grants from foundations and governments, as well as corporate sponsorships and donations from private individuals. Y2Y's goal is not about keeping people out, or establishing the entire area as a protected park; rather, its wildlife corridors are created through a great deal of negotiation with municipalities, residents and companies interested in developing or extracting the area’s resources, as well as occasional land acquisition.

These arrangements allow people to continue living and working in the area, but set defined limits that accommodate wildlife.

“The old model of just setting aside one park and assuming everything is going to be fine, it's a business model that simply doesn't work if your business is wildlife conservation,” says Heuer.

“Wildland is not about excluding people,” adds Fisher, “it's about excluding some of their activities. This planet really is about all species having an opportunity to live on it, and not just humans.”

(Listen to Anik See's audio documentary about rewilding on CBC Radio's Ideas, starting at 9 p.m. on Monday Nov. 24.)

Gallery: Stunning wildlife photos of 2014