Can Moving Endangered Species Save Them from Extinction?

Article by: Jane Marsh, Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co

Most people have heard the story of the Yellowstone wolves — extirpated from the park, their disappearance wreaked ecological havoc until they were restored, with elk populations booming and coyotes going hungry in their absence. Not long after the park brought the wolves back, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed them from the Endangered Species List.

But moving animals and plants isn’t always so simple. Under skies full of starlings, many argue relocating species is just asking for another kudzu or lionfish disaster. There has to be a middle ground.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering a change to the Endangered Species Act that would allow it to move species between habitats as a protection against the impacts of climate change.

Three Options

When it comes to deliberately moving species from one location to another, there are three possible scenarios:

  1. Restoring a species to their original habitat after they were extirpated, meaning they went extinct in one local spot. This is what happened with the Yellowstone wolves. Few people argue against doing this, though reintroducing large carnivores does tend to stir controversy among ranchers and nearby homeowners. 
  2. Moving species to a new geographic location but keeping the animals or plants contained. For example, Pinta Island Galapagos tortoises are extinct. But a very similar Galapagos tortoise subspecies could be released back into the Pinta tortoises’ original range, thereby filling the niche they left empty. The tortoises would be contained because they can’t swim. The other option in this category is to breed animals in zoos, wildlife preserves and sanctuaries. 
  3. Releasing species into a new area without containing them in any way. This is the most hotly debated idea when it comes to moving species by far. This situation has happened numerous times by accident — such as the transport of black rats on ships — and on purpose, like when hunters brought aoudads — also called Barbary sheep — to North America. Aoudads are threatened in their native Africa but have done so well in the U.S. that they’re now invasive. Is that a success?

Opposing Viewpoints

At the heart of the debate is how much humans should intervene. Some opponents of moving endangered species have a “let nature take its course” approach, arguing that scientists spend too much time and money trying to stop an ecological freight train.

On the other end of the spectrum, most conservationists condemn this laissez-faire attitude. They point out that humans caused the species to become endangered in the first place, so they can — by definition — no longer let nature take its course. This group of scientists can be further broken down into two camps of thought:

  1. Those who desperately want to intervene before a species becomes extinct but fear moving animals and plants haphazardly will displace other species that may then die off.
  2. Those who argue it’s better to preserve a species than an ecosystem. Saving animals and plants by any means necessary is better than keeping a few ecosystems historically intact.

The question, then, is not about whether to save endangered species. It’s simply a matter of how.

Two of Every Kind — or, Hopefully, Many More

The best compromise seems to lie in zoos and other conservation facilities. Often compared to a modern-day Noah’s ark, they can keep species contained and breed them to bolster their populations. Zoos also let scientists study endangered species up close by using techniques such as spectroscopy, necropsies and good old-fashioned ethology. Then, when the species’ numbers are sturdy enough, wildlife managers can release them back into their native range.

Like any compromise, this situation doesn’t fully satisfy everyone. Not all animals breed readily in captivity and zoos aren’t nearly as natural as an animal’s wild habitat. Breeding programs and conservation initiatives can also be expensive. But it’s the best solution for many species, considering their native habitat is often destroyed by loggers, farmers, the spread of climate change or human development.

A Nuanced Issue

The crux of the assisted colonization debate is no blanket approach works for all species or locations. In a sense, arguing about moving endangered species as a whole is pointless, since they run the gamut from insects to elephants, from the Arctic to Africa. There are endangered plants, mushrooms, shrimp and gorillas, all with different diets, reproductive abilities and potential for invasiveness.

Of course, moving endangered species can save them from extinction. But at what cost? Assisted colonization could work, but conservationists must look at each situation individually before pulling the trigger — lest Spix’s macaws become the next European starling.

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Wolf in Yellowstone in snowy environment with forested background
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