A group of scientists has suggested that species threatened with extinction by climate change should be moved to other parts of the world where they could survive.
Writing in Friday's edition of the journal Science, an international team of conservation scientists from Australia, Britain, and the United States argued that species may not be able to relocate themselves before climate change destroys their habitat.
The authors suggest that "assisted migration" may be necessary for the survival of these species.
"When I first brought up this idea some 10 years ago in conservation meetings, most people were horrified," said University of Texas at Austin Prof. Camille Parmesan, one of the paper's authors, in a UT press release. "But now, as the reality of global warming sinks in, and species are already becoming endangered and even going extinct because of climate change, I'm seeing a new willingness in the conservation community to at least talk about the possibility of helping out species by moving them around."
For many conservationists, this proposal flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Humanity's record of introducing nonnative species into ecosystems – intentionally and otherwise – has not been good. Some transplanted species do not survive; many others survive too well, driving out native plants and animals.
Scientific American quotes Matt Lewis, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund: "We do not, under most conceivable scenarios, support or encourage introduction of species to habitats outside of their historical range," he said. "It is rare to find an example of such an introduction that hasn't led to dire consequences for one or more indigenous species in the area of introduction, and it is naive to think that such consequences would not also be a factor under the framework the authors propose."
But despite conservationists' history of clumsy transplantation, the authors believe that we can get it right this time: "Moving species between continents caused all sorts of problems, and has given translocation a bad name amongst conservation organisations," said co-author Chris Thomas in a press release from the University of York:
"But this is not what we are suggesting. Ecology has moved on a long way since then, and we now know that moving species within the same general region (e.g. from France to Britain) hardly ever causes serious biological problems. The time is fast approaching when we need to identify the species that might need to be protected — from a European or global perspective — within Britain, and then set about moving them here."
The Associated Press quotes Stanford biologist Terry Root, who is not listed as one of the authors but is an advocate of assisted migration. Ms. Root calls for a "triage" that prioritizes which animals should be saved:
"We've got to work on the ones we have a prayer of saving," Root said.
Some species will have to be written off, she suggested, such as threatened and endangered species of the Sky Islands in Arizona and New Mexico because "they don't have any place to move to."
"Those species are functionally extinct right now," Root said. "They're toast."
When deciding which species to save and which to watch die, Root said one key is uniqueness. That's why she said she'd save the odd-looking Tuatara of New Zealand, a lizard-like creature with almost no living relatives, over the common sparrow.
In The Scotsman newspaper, Mr. Thomas says that a warming Britain could provide a comfortable habitat for a number of threatened species, including the Spanish imperial eagle, the mole-like Pyrenean desman, the map butterfly, and the Iberian lynx.
The full journal article is available here (subscription required).