MOVING TREES

9 December 2019

  An article in High Country News last year discussed the philosophy of transplanting species – ones that appear to be threatened by climate change - to what hopefully will be better future habitats. (“Conservationists give assisted migration a second look.”  Maya L. Kapoor, HCN, 20 August  2018.) An example cited involved a private attempt to establish groves of redwood trees north of their current range. Many scientists are leery of the concept of “assisted migration,” because of the uncertainties of how climate-induced change will progress, and because putting new species into new environments often has had unexpected (and not always desirable) consequences.

   When the concept of climate change first reached the public ear – and when few people really took it seriously – there was Pollyanna-ish talk about the “good things” that would come with the weather changes. “Having some beach weather in Seattle wouldn’t be all that bad.” “So, we can’t grow grapes in California, anymore; what would be wrong with Alaskan wines?” “So, we can always buy more of our maple syrup from Canada.” The problem with that thinking is that there’s a lot more to consider than just temperature ranges. As one example: there has been enough study done of sugar maples to be pretty confident that they will disappear from New England, at least as an economic tree. They grow in Canada now, and will likely survive there longer than in the United States. But there are ecological and physical factors in Canada that extend beyond mere “weather” that will make it impossible for the species to expand to the north, and Canada is unlikely to be the maple sugar capital of the world for long.( K. Solarik. 2017. Limited migration: Will sugar maple tap out to climate change? PhD. thesis, University of Quebec at Montreal.)

   Let’s not be naïve. We’re not talking about just redwood trees or sugar maples. In the United States alone, there are hundreds of thousands of species of trees, shrubs, grasses, herbs, mosses, lichens and vines that exist together to form local ecological character. Add to that the birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and other critters that depend on, and contribute to, the environmental make-up. Already, some 60 percent of United States songbird species have experienced significant declines in population sizes; many of those heavily dependent on insects for food may be beyond saving. I don't have any figures for other vertebrates or for invertebrates, but I’m guessing the losses are already at least as high. Granted that not all the declines are directly related to climate change, the effects of other factors will be exacerbated by the disruption of our long-term climatic expectations.

   Back in 1976, Tom Lovejoy of the World Wildlife Foundation wrote an article on the status of endangered species. His conclusion was that there were already so many potential extinctions that we might have to set up an endangered species priority system, to decide what to attempt to save and what to let go. [T. Lovejoy. 1976. We must decide which species will go forever. Smithsonian 7(4): 52-59.] That was nearly 50 years ago, when it was still possible to list the known or suspected critical species. Today, we are at the point at which we might consider a list of what is not endangered. The list would be relatively short.

   We are used to geological and biological times moving much more slowly than human time. With climate change, the reverse has become true.  Even if our current government wasn't controlled by those who deny, or don't care about, climate change, we are probably past the point where anything can be done that will be significant enough to save the birds, the bugs, the trees - and us. If we’re going to do anything to try to reverse climate change, or even to slow it down, the need is immediate.

   Relocating individual species? To use some old, old clichés, that’s like "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," and "fiddling while Rome burns.”


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