Saving Species by Hand

Controversial method of moving climate-change-threatened plants and animals to more hospitable conditions shows promise
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Controversial method of moving climate-change-threatened plants and animals to more hospitable conditions shows promise

We've previously reported on climate change's all-out war on cute-and-fuzzies like the pika—which practically explode when temperatures go above 75 degrees F. Since they can only go so far up a mountain to get cool, their limited habitat would seemingly hem them in for a grim future.

But scientists in England are trying out a controversial technique to try and save creatures pinned by global warming and limited habitat: They're literally picking them up and moving them to more hospitable climates. Called assisted colonization, this method seems to be working, at least for two species of threatened butterfly.

The biologists moved two butterfly species 20 to 40 miles north of the edge of their existing ranges in northern England, then watched and waited. Over six years, the new butterfly populations grew and expanded in these "climatically suitable" areas -- a result the study authors say bodes well for assisted colonization as a conservation strategy.

Could we use assisted colonization to help save critters on our continent? The early answer seems to be "yes," but critics worry about the potential negative long-term effects of removing entire animal populations to new areas and ecosystems.

As with most critical world matters, the gist of the argument can be found within a classic Simpsons quote:

Skinner: Well, I was wrong. The lizards are a godsend.

Lisa: But isn't that a bit short-sighted? What happens when we're overrun by lizards?

Skinner: No problem. We simply unleash wave after wave of Chinese needle snakes. They'll wipe out the lizards.

Lisa: But aren't the snakes even worse?

Skinner: Yes, but we're prepared for that. We've lined up a fabulous type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat.

Lisa: But then we're stuck with gorillas!

Skinner: No, that's the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.

Nice.

—Ted Alvarez

Lend me a hand (High Country News' GOAT)