Editor's Note: The following is an edited and expanded excerpt from Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris. Copyright © 2011 Emma Marris.
Jessica Hellmann, an ecologist at Notre Dame University in Indiana, is in the midst of exactly the kind of painstaking study that can help guide those who want to move species. Hellmann works, among other places, on Vancouver Island, studying a kind of oak savanna ecosystem that most people associate with California. The star players of these savannas are called Garry oaks or Oregon white oaks, large trees often gnarled into unique shapes. Under their canopies grow mossy meadows of wildflowers, including buttercups and star- shaped blue camas. For Canadians, this kind of ecosystem is a beloved break from the evergreens that otherwise dominate the landscape. And according to the nonprofit Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, "approximately 100 species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds, butterflies and other insects are officially listed as 'at risk' in these ecosystems" in Canada. The range of these Garry oak savannas hugs the Pacific coast from central California to just about halfway up Vancouver Island. These savannas are quite rare in Canada and threatened by land development. Hellmann thinks that British Columbians might be interested in establishing such ecosystems farther north on the island or even on the province's mainland as the climate warms. So one set of questions that her study is asking bears directly on whether such a move would work.
For example, what are the essential components of a Garry oak savanna? Which of these are limiting its range in the North? Will the Garry oak systems be able to move themselves? If so, will the more mobile components of the ecosystem, such as the butterflies, move first? And if one were to move the ecosystem, would it be best to use the organisms from the northern edge of the range to seed the new site, or would organisms from the center of the range fare better? This last question is important because Hellmann expects that the butterflies, oaks, and other constituents of the system will prove to genetically vary as one moves from south to north. The butterflies on Vancouver Island, for example, are genetically different from their cousins on the mainland. "Would you take that whole gradient and scootch everybody?" asks Hellmann.
Getting the answers to these questions all starts with renting a house. Ecological research is a lot of work, and results that can be summarized in a sentence or two represent the hard-won outcome of years of logistical management, grueling days of fieldwork, and caffeine-fueled writing binges. To learn about the dynamics of Garry oak savannas on Vancouver Island, Hellmann had to first get grant money to do the work by putting together a proposal compelling enough to beat out its rivals. Once she got the money, she had to set up a local headquarters, in this case a house in Ladysmith, British Columbia. She then recruited a team, including Caroline Williams, a Ph.D. student from the University of Ontario, and André Burnier, an undergraduate from Brown, to do much of the daily work. With the help of satellite photos and a tour of the island in a rental car, she identified Garry oak sites and sites where Garry oak might conceivably migrate, designed several experiments, bought equipment to collect data and raise butterflies, jerry-rigged the data-collection devices so they would survive out in the field, and procured vehicles for the team. And this is only one of two headquarters. She had to go through the same rigmarole for a team at the center of the Garry oak savanna range in Oregon. The Oregon sites act as controls to which she compares findings at the edges of the range.