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Oct 052010

From Green Right Now Reports

What to do if a species seems doomed to extinction in the face of climate change? How about an assisted change of scenery?

In the Oct. 1 issue of the journal Ecological Applications, Arizona State environmental ethicist Ben Minteer and ecologist James P. Collins take a look at managed relocation, otherwise known as assisted colonization, assisted migration and assisted translocation.

Whatever you call it, the process involves the physical relocation of endangered or threatened species of plants and animals, by humans, to new geographical locations.

“New approaches to conservation, such as MR mean the need for a new ‘ecological ethics’ geared toward problem-solving in ecological research and policy,” says Minteer. “Beyond asking ‘should’ we do it, there’s the more pragmatic ethical question: what separates a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ MR activity?”

In a time of rapid global change, Collins says that “ecologists and biodiversity managers will have to think hard about not only what management actions are possible, but also which ones are acceptable ethically.”

Minteer points out that while moving species around is nothing new, the climate change rationale for doing so is. “Looking past creating parks and shielding species from bullets, bulldozers and oil spills in favor of the anticipatory relocation for conservation purposes strikes many as different, in terms of motive and perhaps the extent of the consequences.”

While the practice has no guarantees of success, managed relocation of species is already being put into practice. The Florida torreya tree is one example, and there have been proposals for the relocation of the Quino Checkerspot butterfly and the Iberian lynx.

Torreya trees at Torreya State Park. (Image: Florida State Parks)

Collins says that the real scientific concern with species relocation – voiced by prominent skeptics – is that crossing evolutionary boundaries via managed relocation will produce a number of negative ecological and genetic consequences for species and systems on the receiving end.

How to leap the ethical gulf separating decisions about which species should be moved and “saved” is also critical to the debate. Some argue that human activity has already played an active role in shifting species and that some populations are “naturally” undergoing range shifts without assistance due to climate change in response to human pressures as well as natural ones.

Will the shift from use of traditional protected areas and historical systems models lead people to start moving species all over the landscape?

“I think that fear is exaggerated, though the precedent that would be set for ecological policy by formally adopting MR, even as a last resort, is indeed a significant issue,” says Minteer.