As the climate changes, plants like the Garry oaks and animals are suddenly finding themselves outside of their comfort zones. Some are moving. Scientists are documenting range shifts up mountains and towards the poles in creatures from butterflies to trees. Some species will be able to keep up with the changing climate, but others will be too slow, or they will have their path blocked by a valley, a mountain, a city or even a single road. Trapped in their former home, which will, in fits and starts, change into something different, perhaps something hotter and dryer, they will perish.
Conservationists are increasingly considering moving plants and animals in advance of climate change to places where they might thrive in a warmer future. But they are hesitant and nervous; assisted migration is a long way from the conservation many grew up with.
After a lifetime studying the infinitely complex workings of existing ecosystems, the idea of taking a species from one into the other willy-nilly sounds like a terrible idea. The organisms could die, because you don't know exactly what they need to live— some specific soil microbes or microclimatic condition. Or, in a much worse scenario, they could do so well that they become a dreaded "invasive species" that takes over and pushes out native species. And it is one thing when humanity accidentally creates an invasive species. Humanity is dumb. But to do so these days, with all we know, on purpose? For many ecologists and conservation biologists, that is just insanity. But then…to do nothing and watch plants and animals go extinct because of climate change that we caused?
What is interesting about climate change is that it pits two common assumptions against each other: the myth of pristine nature and the myth of a correct baseline for each area. If humans are outside nature and humans caused climate change, then it follows that humans should make good— should make sure that species that would have survived without climate change survive, no matter what— even if it means moving stressed-out organisms to new places where they can thrive under the new climate. But if ecosystems have a correct baseline to which we must return— the second assumption— then we absolutely cannot move species from one area to another. To do so would violate the baseline and be tantamount to willfully creating invasive species. This conundrum has paralyzed many scientists.
Proponents of moving plants and animals threatened by rising temperatures to more hospitable locations are more concerned about the increasing rate of species extinction, while opponents are more worried about the integrity of coevolved ecosystems. But in general, scientists are pretty freaked out by the whole idea.
To find out more, I visited Hellman's northern site. The week I was there, Hellmann was also visiting the team to see that all was well, downloading data from the field, and checking on transplanted oaks. Together the four of us drove up and down the landward side of Vancouver Island, crossing and recrossing the range limit of the ecosystem and visiting sites on military bases, in public parks, on "Crown land" managed for forestry, and on privately owned nature reserves. From the car, the island seemed to be a blanket of conifers, with land carved out for roads and towns. The Garry oak sites were hidden treasures, tucked down winding roads, little patches of flowers, grasses and great gnarled oaks in a sea of Douglas-fir and hemlock. I could see why Canadians found them enchanting. I could also see why they might not be able to move north by themselves.