Scientists plan to relocate species

Arlington, VA – As climate change destroys habitats, scientists have been considering relocating species into more suitable environments but have been put off by fears of damaging the new ecosystem. Now, a group of researchers has come up with a tool to evalauate the potential success of such managed relocation.

Managed relocation has been condemned by some scientists for fear that relocated species would overpopulate their new habitats, cause extinctions of local species, or clog water pipes as invasive zebra mussels have done in the Great Lakes. Nevertheless, some conservationists and groups have already used managed relocation or are currently considering doing so.

“We have previously been able to say, ‘let nature run its course’,” says Jessica Hellmann of the University of Notre Dame. “But because humans have already changed the world, there is no letting nature run its course anymore. Now, action, like inaction, has potential negative consequences.”

The researchers’ tool is designed to help expose managed relocation’s risks, trade-offs and costs – considerations that are often absent from decision-making on natural resources. Specifically, it provides stakeholders with a system for individually scoring a proposed relocation based on multi-disciplinary criteria. These multi-disciplinary criteria include the probability of the success of a proposed relocation, its potential for harming receiving ecosystems, its costs, its potential for triggering violations of the Endangered Species Act, and the social and cultural importance of impacted species.

Comparisons of stakeholders’ scores should help stakeholders identify the sources of their disagreements so that they may be resolved. However, the tool does not, by itself produce management recommendations.

“The tool takes advantage of the fact that, although science can’t tell us exactly what will happen in the future, it can tell us how likely a favorable result is – useful information for decision-makers,” says National Science Foundation (NSF) Program Director Nancy Huntly.

Managed relocation is not the only controversial adaptation strategy currently being considered by scientists. Other such strategies include fertilizing the oceans to increase their absorption of greenhouse gases and thereby reduce climate change, conserving huge migratory corridors that may extend thousands of kilometers, and preserving the genetic diversity of threatened species in seed banks.

The report will appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).