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It’s conservation – but not as we know it


This week on Nature Reports Climate Change, we have a news feature on a topic that has been considered something of a conservation taboo: assisted migration – in other words manually relocating species that are under threat of extinction from climate change.

There’s been a spate of coverage on assisted migration the last year, but as Emma Marris reports, experts are now starting to give serious consideration to how it might work in reality.

Meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from August 1 to 3 ahead of this year’s Ecological Society of America was a group of scientists, lawyers, land managers, economists and ethicists, some of whom feel that relocating species would most likely be a disaster. But it looks like even those opposed to the idea are concerned enough to consider it an option.

Ok, so no-one is really suggesting we move polar bears to the Antarctic (I just liked the cartoon)! More likely is shifting the quino checkerspot butterfly several hundred kilometers north.

But with climate change impacting biological systems throughout the globe, the reality is that many species may have to adapt to climate change in situ or say sayonara as part of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. And for those that could up and leave to a better place if they were not hemmed in by human barriers, giving them a helping hand could make all the difference.

But as Emma details in her news feature, proposals to relocate species are likely to meet some significant barriers – and not just of the physical kind.

After all, modern conservation is designed around the dogma that to protect biodiversity, we must keep species assemblages, habitats and ecosystems intact, whereas shifting species will presumably do just the opposite.

And the unintended consequences of moving species, whether intentional or otherwise, are all too familiar – take the introduction of the cane toad to Australia as a case in point. So deciding on suitable candidates and host communities will be no easy task. Nor will tweaking existing environmental legislation, especially in the current political climate where it is already under threat.

Difficulties aside, I personally think assisted migration is an option worthy of investigation – sure, it slightly reeks of our self-appointed superiority in the Universe. And on geological timescales conditions change – but this time we have changed the conditions — and for those species on the edge of extinction, our assistance, even if it means a radical intervention, might be their last chance.


Olive Heffernan


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