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Open Mic: Repatriation & Reintroduction Revisited

At the Mic: Stacia Novy

Stacia Novy is employed by the US military and also does contractual work for The Peregrine Fund. The latter led to her co-discovering a Solitary Eagle nest in Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge on 30 June 2011.  She has traveled around the world birdwatching, fishing, and hunting. Her adventures have been  published by the Illinois Ornithological Society, The Journal of the North American Falconers Association, American Falconry, and several online birding magazines.


    In the August 2012 issue of Winging It, I penned an article on the word “repatriation”, intended for a general audience without a strict biological background. Since, Rick Wright has voiced criticism of that article on his blog. It has become clear to me that the two terms may warrant examination in a scientific, as well as etymological, context.

A standard biological definition of an “Introduced Species” is: “an alien, exotic, non-indigenous or non-native organism that is present outside of its native range or distributional habitat…” Similarly, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines an “introduced species” as those organisms that are “surviving and reproducing outside of the habitat or environment in which they evolved or spread naturally…” In both definitions, the qualifying phrase “outside of the native range, habitat or environment” is a key consideration in defining and determining a species that has been introduced. Thus, the process of “species introduction”–which ultimately results in an introduced species–applies to organisms or species which conclusively fit that description. It excludes those which are released, accidentally or deliberately, into distributional ranges where an evolutionary history or a history of natural dispersal exists.

Therefore, it is counter-intuitive to suggest that “species introduction” or subsequent introductions (i.e., “reintroduction”) results in species that are surviving and reproducing inside of the habitat, native range or environment in which they evolved or dispersed naturally.

This definition being established for an “introduced species”, and adopted by many conservation biology texts, is such that it can be applied only to those species that are alien, exotic, non-indigenous, non-native and/or living outside of historical ranges. This distinction was noted in my article. Even if one disagrees with semantic variations on the prefix “re-“, the root word “introduction” cannot and should not identify conservation programs devoted to the release of native species into historical areas and/or distributional ranges.

Peregrine Falcon, repatriated or reintroduced? photo by Mike Baird

Wright’s suggestion that species reintroduction implies “….a species being led back or put back…” into a former environment is simply not correct from an evolutionary or biological perspective: a native species cannot be “introduced as new”, “introduced as for the first time”, or even “led back into” an environment in which a genetic and ecological legacy has existed for eons. The premise is this: a native species that has evolved within such contexts already holds a long-standing interaction with its environment and, genetically, has never been separated from it.

The original definitions of “introduction” and, especially, “reintroduction” have been corrupted since the implementation and widespread use of wildlife release programs in the past 30 years or so. The vast majority of these programs were designed to release captive individuals of a given species of concern into native environments and/or historical distributional ranges to replenish dwindling or extirpated wild populations. Hence, the terms “introduction” and “reintroduction” do not properly identify the historical origin of the species in question for such projects.

Although an advocate of the term “repatriation”, I am not the first to realize its application to conservation biology. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists educated me on the subtle differences between repatriation and reintroduction. They, too, were dissatisfied with the latter word to describe the release of native species into historical distributional ranges. Other astute biologists have proposed the following terms: “reestablishment”, “reinforcement”, and “restoration—in lieu of “reintroduction”.

As far as it being “so silly that there is no danger of it catching on”, it’s too late now. Research will reveal that zoological parks, nature centers, and wildlife rehabilitation agencies employ “animal repatriation” to transition captive individuals to wild locations of native origin. I see little difference in the activity of these wildlife release programs and those of conservation biology.

The field of wildlife conservation is rapidly expanding, gaining in popularity, and experiencing the associated “growing pains” of any new discipline. Standardization of nomenclature is a much needed improvement. “Restoration”, “reestablishment”, and “reinforcement” are solid terms to describe the augmentation or return of a species to any environment, regardless of origin and evolutionary history. They are also applicable to single species or multi-species projects (e.g., “the reestablishment of a wetland” or “prairie restoration”). However, to specifically differentiate between wildlife projects involving the return of native species from those involving non-native species, the terms “repatriation” and “reintroduction” are ideal. Repatriation recognizes the evolutionary and/or historical connections that exist between a native species, its environment, and its place of origin; reintroduction does not.

As an example of the contradiction in terms, consider the paper, “Guidelines for the in situ Re-introduction and Translocation of African and Asian Rhinoceros”, published in 2009 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In it, species “introduction” and “re-introduction” are cited as follows:

Introduction: Introduction of an organism is the intentional or accidental dispersal by human agency of a living organism outside its historically known native range…”

Re-introduction: An attempt to establish a species in an area which was once part of its historical range, but from which it has been extirpated or become extinct…”

The first definition is similar to the one presented by the EPA and specifically identifies those species “living outside [a] historically known native range” (i.e., not-native, foreign, exotic, or non-indigenous). In contrast, the second definition identifies species that are to be established “in an area which was once part of its historical range”. Thus, it identifies species which will be living inside or within a historical, distributional range (i.e., native or indigenous). The two terms are nearly opposites of one another. The only difference between them is the prefix “re-“.

I checked many dictionaries in the course of my investigation and none listed a potential meaning of the prefix “re-“ as an “opposite” to introduction. “Re-“ can mean the opposite of “de-“ (e.g. recurved and decurved), but I have never seen the terms “de-introduction” and “re-introduction” promoted in the scientific literature. As Mr. Wright also noted, “re-“ can “indicate withdrawal or backward motion”, as in retract or retrace. However, “re-introduction”, as it’s commonly applied to wildlife biology now, does not indicate “an introduction over and over” and it certainly does not indicate “withdrawal”. On the contrary, it represents the “opposite”.

In the preceding 30-40 years, semantics on the prefix “re-“ have been distorted in the conservation field to include definitions like the one offered by the IUCN. This corruption in meaning has been widely adopted and applied by laypersons and experts alike.

In fact, the ICUN editors applied the following disclaimer, “….The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors”, and rightly so. In the paper, the authors acknowledge that species “reestablishment” has been used in place of “reintroduction”.

Wright’s assertion that “[his] dictionary is better than [mine]” is an amusing and philosophically unsound argument. The dictionary quoted in his blog is likely more recent, not “better”. Dictionary editors are known to update newer versions with words that have gained widespread use since the last publication. However, popularity does not make a word “accurate” or “correct” in application.

I deliberately referenced an old dictionary, prior to the advent of modern wildlife conservation practices, to gain an uncorrupted definition of the word “reintroduction”. And while misapplied terminology might not have so great a negative impact among the general populace, it most certainly has a negative impact among scientific and academic communities. Clear communication is critical to the dissemination of knowledge, replication of experimentation, the evaluation of research methods, and the promotion of ideas and goals. One of the first scientists to realize the dangers of inaccurate and inconsistent nomenclature was Linnaeus. It is an ideal that we are still struggling to achieve today.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

Latest posts by Nate Swick (see all)

  • Sometimes we dream up problems just to solve them–and then don’t solve them very well.

    Consider this minimal pair:

    Ruffed Grouse were re-introduced to East Averna.
    Ruffed Grouse were introduced again to East Averna.

    Completely different, aren’t they? And completely comprehensible, logically, intuitively, and pragmatically.

    If some linguistically naive bee in one’s bonnet still wants one to avoid saying “re-introduced,” then we’ll need an alternative that isn’t semantically pre-occupied.

    “Repatriation” already has the meaning used by zoo administrators and morticians, namely, the return of an individual to its home. “Re-establishment” is already used to describe the state achieved at the end of a successful re-introduction project. And “reinforcement” designates the adding of individuals to an extant population.

    Until I can be convinced that there’s a need for an alternative and that there is a clear and superior alternative to “re-introduced,” I’ll continue in the company of the Oxford English Dictionary, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the hundreds of thousands of birders who use these terms sensibly and correctly every day.

  • Todd Michael Day

    I read both of the Ruffed Grouse examples to mean the same thing, that they were introduced a second time to East Averna.

  • Really? Well, I may have to reconsider–there are now three people out there who understand the word that way.

  • Madeline

    make that 4 people

  • Derek Courtney

    As per the Ruffed Grouse minimalist example, I read the two as different. But I have absolutely no clue how Rick reads them or intends them to be read. In my mind the birds were “re-introduced” by bringing grouse to East Avena where they once were, but currently where none exist. I read the “introduced again” to mean that efforts to bring grouse to East Avena have been undertaken in the distant past and the recent past, for a total of at least two times. Is that what you intended Rick?

    Regardless, the claim that the differences are “completely comprehensible, logically, intuitively, and pragmatically” seems to miss the mark by a good margin. Also, the use of repatriation by the mortician and zoo administrators seems in keeping connotatively with what Ms. Novy is advocating; moreso than the reintroduction. I agree with Ms. Novy that the IUCN’s established uses of introduction and re-introduction seem silly, but there was a post on this blog not long ago about silly bird names. In this case unless the contention is repatriation should only apply to an individual (and I admittedly have no idea if that is a widely accepted ideal in scientific literature), I don’t see a good reason why repatriation doesn’t serve the community better even with existing ties to the vast mortuary and zoo administration businesses. Though I must admit I am unclear whether use by morticians would euphemistically refer to the act of interment or moving the deceased across some imaginary geo-political boundary. So I guess there is room for personal inference semantically in all fields.

    I look at it as the difference between leucism and albinism. While, to the lay person, there may not be any pragmatic difference between leucism and albinism (and even white), they are not equivocal. Likewise, if there is a fundamental difference between re-introduction and re-patriation as Ms. Novy illustrates, adopting terminology that clarifies those differences seems completely comprehensible, logically, intuitively, and pragmatically.

  • John

    Add me to the count, too.

  • I see these has having 2 different meanings as Rick suggests. I am most familiar with the term re-introduction from a fish and game agency context which is widely used and accepted to mean re-establishment of an extirpated population (without distinction to that population being “native” or “introduced” in the first place).

  • Or perhaps more appropriately the act of re-establishing a population (which isn’t always successful). Often these days it seems a matter of debate as to whether what is being re-introduced formerly occupied the area (e.g. Trumpeter Swan, Wild Turkey, etc.)

  • Terry Bronson

    To me, re-introduction can only mean that there was a previous introduction. How can you re-introduce something that was never introduced in the first place? So I agree with those who say that “re-introduced” and “introduced again” mean the same thing–i.e., a second (or subsequent) introduction of something that was previously introduced but did not survive.

    I thus come to “restore” and “restoration” as the terms to use. They imply only going back to what originally existed (if there have been no subsequent introductions) or actually existed when the creature or plant in question died out (in the case of an introduction sometime subsequent to the original state of existence).

  • Ed furlong

    According to Merriam-Webster online, to repatriate is to restore or return to the country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship , as in to repatriate prisoners of war. Given the ecological violence done to bird populations by current land use practices, regulations, propery rights law, etc., repatriation may be the more apt term to describe the efforts we undertake to bring native bird populations back into their original ranges.

    Ed Furlong
    Evergreen, Colorado

  • Bruce Rideout

    I have to agree with Rick. This is a nonissue. I have been working on reintroduction programs for over 20 years and I have never once encountered a person confused by the word or its connotations in this context. You can propose all the alternatives you would like but the train has left the station. There is already a scientific discipline called reintroduction biology. Do a search on Amazon and you will find a dozen or more books on the subject, many with reintroduction biology in the title. The IUCN even has a reintroduction specialist group. Rather than debating this, why don’t we discuss substantive issues, like why some reintroduction programs never even consider disease risks while others require testing for every real or imagined pathogen regardless of how inconsequential it might be? Or whether reintroductions should begin if the original cause(s) of decline have not been mitigated. Or whether genotype matching between source and destination populations should be a requirement for reintroductions. There are many important issues surrounding reintroductions we could discuss. In my view this isn’t one of them.

  • I thought the train had left the station with “raptor” as well, but apparently what this word really means, not its historically accepted and widespread meaning and use, is most important to the ABA. Not that it has weighed in in this debate, but Wright has. Why is a widespread, if incorrect or at least poorly descriptive, word in this current issue a protected species? It seems ironic that within the same week there are two debates on the same blog about fundamentally the same issue, with opposite conclusions being drawn by some. With one, history goes out the window, for the other, history is important.

    Me, I’ve always thought reintroduction was an inaccurate and misleading term.

  • Or try this: go to and conduct a search for “re-introduction.” You’ll find hundreds of papers over the decades by authors like Bruce.

  • Ted Floyd

    Andrew says:

      “…within the same week there are two debates on the same blog…”

    Actually, the falcon debate was on some dude’s private Facebook wall… 🙂

    Which brings me to a broader point. Birders sure love to talk about words, don’t they? Whether it’s juvenile (vs. juvenal; hi, Joe Morlan) or cy (vs. cycle; hi, Greg Neise) or email (vs. e-mail; hi, everybody), nothing fires birders up more than terminology. Thus, I was surprised by this comment, posted to Rick Wright’s blog[*]:

      (I must say that this is the first time I have seen an etymological debate in a bird community.

    Regardless of our take on reintroduction vs. whatever-the-preferred-alternative-is-to-be, one thing is for sure:

      Unlike the physical or mechanical expertise required by most hobbies, the skills that a good birder is expected to display are fundamentally linguistic.

    (So wrote one R. Wright, Birding, April 2003, p. 116.)

    [*] Here:

  • Ted Floyd

    Here’s a thought-experiment. Imagine, just pretend, that the ABA decided to follow the practice of, among others, Bird Watcher’s Digest, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and The New York Times, and not capitalize the common/English names of birds.

    Don’t get all excited. It’s just a thought-experiment. But I’ll say this: If it were to be thus announced, I confidently predict that thousands of comments would be posted here at The ABA Blog. Capital-V Veery vs. lower-case veery…wow, it would be vastly more talked about than counting exotics, expanding the ABA Area, or anything else I can think of.

    Somewhere out there, Robert Mortensen is chuckling.

  • You nailed it Ted. I was indeed chuckling about how this debate reflects a hilarious aspect of our birding culture…and this before I even saw my name mentioned.

    Off the post topic, but because Ted opened the door…

    Personally, I’m a fan of capitalized bird names. The reason why is more practical than you might expect rather than being born of any understanding of proper grammer. I’m from Idaho, give me a break!. When I get dozens of emails a day from birding listservs (that word “listserv” probably needs some discussion too. Where the heck is the silent “e”?) I admit that I don’t read all the emails, but I do skim them to see what birds are being discussed. Those capitalized bird names are much easier for my eye to find.

    On the subject of listserv etiquette, I recall several years ago a request on the AZ-NM list for birders to write bird names in all caps and bold font. I loved it! It was a listserv skimmers dream come true!

  • Couple of thoughts, therefore substantiating Ted’s point while trying to oppose it….. And yes, the falcon thing was on FB, not here. There are just too many places to waste time and/or avoid work these days, it’s hard to keep track.

    I don’t think most birders love to talk about words. Some do, even post on FB unilateral decisions about ones that no-one has discussed as a problem. And as mentioned above, write papers about them where there was no confusion (even if maybe bad etymology). Now, they might react to changes in common usage, but generally they aren’t wandering around talking about them. I think I’ve seen more fired-up birders at a rarity event, or something like Gullapalooza, then the several that comment in response to word events.

    But Ted, you’re right about the capitalization thing. Wow, that would be fun – and probably ugly – to watch. Please do it.

    But in another touch of irony, I took the latest Winging It from my letterbox, and read the article by Jeff Skrentny about countable birds which included discussion about reintroduced birds. However, he places a bet in each direction, paraphrasing the verb “reintroduce” with “repatriate,” but further in the same quote of the rules maintained “reintroduced” to describe the birds themselves. Man should have been a politician.

    Generally, though language should be about clarity of meaning. If change means a clearer picture of what is meant or going on, generally it’s a useful change. If change, or lack thereof, makes or keeps things muddier, it’s not useful. And while history is useful in itself, I recall reading elsewhere with respect to word change that the new and incoming users of words don’t have a problem with learning the new words or uses. Just the old fogey foes of change do.

  • Ted Floyd

    This very topic came up last night at dinner with the little people. My daughter, a second-grader, told me how, “when she was quite young” (ha!), she thought that “resolution” (i.e., an activity for the occasion of the New Year), was pronounced as if it were “re” + “solution.”

    Which led straightway to an exploration of the matter of trisyllabic laxing (cf. resolve, resolution) in modern English.

    Somewhere out there, Rick Wright, Robert Mortensen, Stacia Novy, and Andrew Haffenden are all having their very different reactions to the preceding.

  • Ted Floyd

    One more, if I may. In another recent conversation (online, different forum), a few of us were talking about the curious fates of the words “iterate” and “reiterate.” Basically, “iterate” has come to mean “reiterate.” The original has been replaced by its derivative. Jean Baudrillard to the rescue, yet again.

    Which serves Rick’s point: the “re” prefix isn’t necessarily, well, a prefix at all.

    That said, I’m not opposed to Stacia Novy’s goal. In “my” very first issue of Birding magazine (i.e., the first one I edited, namely, August 2002), there appears a Point/Counterpoint feature. The combatants, er, authors, insisted on different titles for the piece. Thus:


      Should Trumpeter Swans be Introduced to the Eastern United States and Canada?–No. (by Bill Whan and Gerry Rising)

      Should Trumpeter Swans be Re-introduced to the Eastern United States and Canada?–Yes. (by Ruth E. Shea)

    Whatever you think of the merits of the cases, I can tell you that the authors gave a lot of thought to the wording of their titles. In some sense, then, Rick Wright and Stacia Novy are allies here: They’re both saying, it seems to me, that it matters what words we birders use. And I guess that means I disagree with the implication, at least, in what Andrew Haffenden and Robert Mortensen are saying, namely, that words and terminology are uninteresting or, at best, “hilarious.”

    Then again, I’m a magazine editor. I like this sort of thing.

    And, as always: YMMV.

  • Ted Floyd

    Here’s proof that words–even style and orthography–make a difference:

    Be afraid. Be very afraid.

    (Thanks to editor Michael Retter for bringing to my attention this chilling news.)

  • I think you misunderstand me Ted. I think the meaning of words is very important – I thought I made that clear in the posts above. I can’t see anywhere that I suggested that it doesn’t matter what words we use, or that words and terminology are uninteresting. However, I don’t think birders spend much time talking about words, they just use them.

    Y’all have a good day, I’m going birding.

  • Eloquent headlines that would make no sense at all if the revisionists had their way.

  • Me too (meaning: me too, I’m going birding). But I would argue, and think that I have, that birding IS time spent talking about words.

  • Andrew Haffenden

    Wow, just spotted my first gerund of the year. Hopefully a dangling participle will turn up next. Or maybe – OMG – a predicative adjective! Bliss!

  • Ted, I love love love words. Ever since my 9th grade advanced placement reading teacher introduced us to Greek and Latin roots, I’ve had a thing for exploring the history of word. Etymology online is pinned to my search bar and an icon on my iPhone for quick access. The hilarity is in the squabble which I think is natural for a major segment of birder personality profiles. I think this debate over re- in a way defines many a birder.

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