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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 07/28/2008

Freedman: Time to Play God With Wildlife?

By Andrew Freedman

Climate change continues to prompt a reexamination of how humans view our role on the planet. A new study, published in Science magazine by several conservation biologists, argues that due to the possibility of climate change-related habitat destruction, conservationists should consider taking the step of physically moving species from one location to another in order to save them.

The researchers say that species whose habitat is being threatened by climate change may benefit from being moved to areas that are more climatologically hospitable. Otherwise, the scientists state, numerous species could become extinct due to human activities such as the burning of coal for electricity.

Keep reading to learn about the controversial premise of "moving species" threatened by climate change. For the weather outlook, see our full forecast.

Scientists call this idea "assisted colonization" or "assisted migration." The concept is relatively new, and it is getting more attention in conservation circles. There will be a panel discussion and a workshop on the topic at next month's annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Assisted migration is controversial, however, in part because it differs from traditional conservation practices that have emphasized the need to protect a species' present habitat, and not areas that are outside of a species' historical range. It also stirs up a host of scientific, ethical, and legal complications.

"It's so new that it's very difficult to know how it's perceived by conservation people in the field," said Dov Sax, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at Brown University who is organizing the Ecological Society panel. "It's going to be a really important topic of debate in the conservation field in the decades to come."

Anyone who has ever visited a National Wildlife Refuge or donated money to the Nature Conservancy understands how ecosystem and species conservation has traditionally functioned: scientists identify species that need to be protected, and then work with policymakers to protect the habitat where such species live. This has typically meant fencing off certain lands against human encroachment, oftentimes to the chagrin of land developers.

But the climate-related problem with this approach, the study says, is that climate change may proceed so rapidly that species won't have time to naturally disburse to new lands, and because of human settlements, they may not be able to find new habitat at all.

"Current conservation practices may not be enough to avert species losses in the face of mid- to upper-level climate projections," the study states. "We must contemplate the possibility that some regions of the Earth will experience high levels of warming (>4° C) within the next 100 years, as well as altered precipitation. Under these circumstances, the future for many species and ecosystems is so bleak that assisted colonization might be their best chance."

From an ethical standpoint, Sax said, people could be considered to have an obligation to save species that they are helping to push to the brink of extinction. However, introducing species into new areas presents significant risks of unintended consequences. This has been seen again and again with invasive species such as the zebra mussel, which has caused significant harm to ecosystems in the Great Lakes states.

"Assisted colonization will always carry some risk, but these risks must be weighed against those of extinction and ecosystem loss," the study states.

Instead of tigers or polar bears, the paper identifies certain species of corals and butterflies as good candidates for assisted migration.

"We're not going to be able to do this with a lot of the most charismatic conservation species because local people will not want top level predators moving into their own backyard," study co-author Camille Parmesan told me. Parmesan is known for her work that details climate change is already affecting different species.

She said assisted migration is not anywhere close to gaining acceptance in the broader conservation and policymaking communities. For example, she said there is "huge resistance" within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to considering assisted migration in the case of the endangered Quino Checkerspot Butterfly in California.

Nevertheless, Parmesan is planning to propose just that next month when she gives a talk for FWS officials. She said she will tell officials they should protect areas where butterflies don't currently live, but where they might need to go if the climate continues to change.

"I don't know how this is going to fly," she said.

When asked about critics who might see assisted migration as playing God with endangered species, Parmesan chuckled and said, "People have no qualms about playing god with the climate, so that strikes me as being rather hypocritical."

What do you think, do we have an obligation to help species that climate change is putting at risk, or is that taking conservation efforts a step too far?

By Andrew Freedman  | July 28, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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