GIS and Rewilding Efforts

Mark Altaweel


Restoring ecosystems to a level where these ecosystems are self-sustaining is a major goal of rewilding efforts. Furthermore, rewilding is seen as a key aspect of balancing natural threats, particularly from human encroachment, while helping to restore global health, helping to mitigate climate change and potentially other long-term threats.

Rewilding often means the natural ecosystem should require relatively little intervention as the ecosystem develops, where the native plants and animals could help to increase the health of the ecosystem over time and reach a sustainable balance.

While rewilding is largely seen as needed, the questions that arise is what type of rewilding is needed, that is which animal and plant species, and where should efforts focus? Increasingly, research is providing answers to these questions, where GIS is increasingly part of efforts to help rewild different regions.

Studies that have looked at rewilding have shown that natural ecosystems can recover relatively quickly, sometimes with minimal or no human help. For instance, in Europe, it was shown that forested lands can be restored in abandoned farms, where tree canopy heights approach older woodlands within about 50 years after abandonment of farms near woodlands.

Vegetation in a forest reclaims the site of an abandoned wooden structure.
Vegetation in a forest reclaims the site of an abandoned wooden structure. Photo: Hosford’s Sawmill Site, National Park Service, public domain.

Using GIS to Strategy Approach Rewilding

In terms of using GIS and spatial approaches, however, the benefit is that rewilding can be done more strategically if particular species that aid in rewilding can be made by using spatial data.[1] 

A recent example of rewilding efforts taking advantage of spatial approaches to improve decisions on where to rewild include a project that developed a framework called Spatial Planning of Rewilding Effort (Spore). In this case, a modeling framework can be integrated with the spatial framework where landcover is modeled for change based on an intervention (e.g., human release of a given species).

The models account for landscape structure and the effect of introduced species on that structure. For example, in the use case on the island of Guam, the Micronesian starling (Aplonis opaca) was selected to be introduced into specific areas where the bird can spread seeds. The island has been ravaged by human-introduced snakes, which ate birds and other seed dispersers, leading to the island being denuded of native plant species.

Researchers have now identified where are the best locations for the bird to be introduced so as to maximize rewilding efforts that are likely to lead to reaching greater benefit in native plant dispersal on the island. By modeling where existing plants can be reintroduced, and determining where the starling could succeed, the effort could then estimate how native plants could be more effectively dispersed.[2]

Data Sources for Analyzing Rewilding with GIS

On a larger scale, efforts have also looked at data that encompass more than only landcover data. For instance, researchers have also incorporated longer-term data to make projections on where rewilding will likely have the most success in Europe.

Data incorporating artificial light, human accessibility using existing transport infrastructure, ecosystem productivity, and areas that have evident, vegetation deviation in areas projected to be likely abandoned by 2040. This has led researches to estimate areas across much of Europe on where rewilding will likely have the most success, with central and eastern Europe showing potentially greater success in rewilding based on the data incorporated and human land cover that will change due to natural and human-induced change.[3]

In addition to published research, managers and researchers are assessing the range of reintroduced animals, such as the European bison. In this case, ArcGIS is used by the researcher to map the potential range of bison using the available plant cover data.

Photo of wood bison behind a wire fence.
Wood Bison (Bison bison athabasacae) are being bred in captivity in preparation for reintroduction into the wild. Photo: USGS, Anchorage, Alaska, public domain.

Researchers can then predict the likely range of the bison and what areas are potentially the best habitat for their required range using the existing landcover data. What this shows is that by combining spatial data with estimates of habitat potential based on landcover, researchers can better predict likely habitats where bison could succeed the most, thereby presenting them with information about the best places to release the bison.[4]

Rewilding Improves Natural Habitat

Rewilding is seen as crucial in efforts to improve habitat around the world. Some have debated that better farming practices are also critical. Rewilding is likely to be critical if ecosystems are to be restored fully. From existing research, GIS and spatial approaches will likely be important to estimate where rewilding efforts will likely have the most success and make better decisions about what to rewild. 


[1]    For more on a rewilding study looking at forest growth in Europe, see:  Broughton, Richard K., James M. Bullock, Charles George, Ross A. Hill, Shelley A. Hinsley, Marta Maziarz, Markus Melin, J. Owen Mountford, Tim H. Sparks, and Richard F. Pywell. 2021. “Long-Term Woodland Restoration on Lowland Farmland through Passive Rewilding.” Edited by Dusan Gomory. PLOS ONE 16 (6): e0252466.

[2]    For more on rewilding efforts on Guam and the use of Spore, see:  Thierry, Hugo, and Haldre Rogers. 2020. “Where to Rewild? A Conceptual Framework to Spatially Optimize Ecological Function.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 287 (2020): 20193017.

[3]    For more on Europe and areas where rewilding is likely to succeed the most, see:  Ceaușu, Silvia, Max Hofmann, Laetitia M. Navarro, Steve Carver, Peter H. Verburg, and Henrique M. Pereira. 2015. “Mapping Opportunities and Challenges for Rewilding in Europe.” Conservation Biology 29 (4): 1017–27.

[4]    For more on the European bison and the use of ArcGIS for rewilding, see:


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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