Actions to move endangered species to another island, country or continent in order to preserve the species are highly controversial in the research community. But this strategy is now gaining increasing acceptance – because it could be the last resort to save a species.
Desperate to save a species of Hawaiian seabird from rising sea levels, scientists are now relocating the tiny birds to a new island hundreds of kilometers away. Similar migrations have been proposed for other birds, lizards, butterflies and flowers.
The dangers of transporting both animals and plants are well known. Aliens, because they have no natural enemies, can replace other species and habitat types when they arrive in a new habitat. They can reduce local natural diversity and bring diseases and parasites with them.
In the United States, Asian carp has spread through rivers and streams across the country and threatens to destroy the native ecosystem. Starlings from Europe destroy crops and drive away songbirds. Zebra mussels from Eurasia, which have an exceptionally high dispersal ability, decimate the indigenous population. Kudzu vines were planted from Japan to stabilize soil and have spread to dozens of states where they smother other plants.
In Norway, mink, salmon parasite Gyrodactylus salaris, sitka spruce, American lobster, king crab, Canada goose, signal lobster, cane plague, garden lupine and giant bear crackers are examples of alien species that have managed to establish themselves and that cause negative effects on natural diversity. Norway has its own action plan to combat harmful alien organisms.
In the European Union, the societal costs of invasive alien species are estimated to be at least €12 billion annually, and in 2014 the European Union adopted a regulation to combat invasive alien species.
Salvation could be
But for the Tristram seabird tern on Tern Island in northeast Hawaii, moving about 40 chicks to artificial burrows more than 500 miles away could bring new hope to the species. These swallows are in danger of extinction.
Biologist Eric VanderWerf of the nonprofit Pacific Rim Conservation says Tern Island, which lies just 1.8 meters above sea level, is being swept away by rising sea levels.
According to the United Nations Climate Panel, the sea has not risen faster for at least 3,000 years.
Climate change increases the need to transfer species. To save the barnacles, says VanderWerf, we must take action before the population declines dramatically.
The Joe Biden administration has announced changes to US legislation to protect endangered species, which could potentially make it easier to move some endangered species to places where they were not previously recorded.
Therefore, American experts and researchers are now looking into the possibility of moving species such as deer, butterflies, lizards, and desert flowers.
Critics fear that repopulating the species could lead to undesirable ecological consequences, such as foreign species replacing existing populations.
You must change the mindset
The new law, which is likely to be finalized this summer, reflects a fundamental shift in the way we think about protecting and conserving species, says biologist Jason MacLachlan, who works at the University of Notre Dame.
McLachlan points out that rising temperatures have consequences for many species.
– We are forced to reconsider our way of thinking – even if it is uncomfortable. He asks, can we say that one species is fine and the other is not.
Researcher Mark Schwartz of the University of California says he was initially skeptical of the idea of moving species for conservation when biologists first began discussing it a large number of years ago. But today, he sees, many species are at risk of extinction.
He believes that doing nothing can be a costly mistake.
James Watson, a conservation researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, believes many species must be repopulated if extinction is to be prevented.
– Among other things, the increasingly dangerous forest fires caused by the climate forced the issue of resettlement, he believes. He points out that the huge individual wildfires have all likely destroyed the last habitats of certain species.
– We’ve already played Russian roulette with the climate. And he thinks we might as well take a little risk.
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