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Protecting endangered species by relocating them?


Federal proposal’s merit hinges on whether a move is ‘in good faith,’ conservationists say

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

Wildlife officials are proposing an ambitious policy to protect plants and animals from climate change: by moving threatened species to greener pastures.

In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a change to the Endangered Species Act that would allow federally protected plants and animals to be introduced in areas where they’ve never lived before.

By establishing “experimental populations” wildlife managers say the policy could improve efforts to preserve vulnerable species as worsening climate change causes habitats within their historical ranges to become inhospitable.  

Federal law does allow plants and animals to be introduced into habitats outside of where they currently live, but only within their own historical range.

“Recovering species and preventing their extinction will require innovative, proactive, science-based policies and conservation actions that address the growing impacts from climate change and invasive species before it is too late,” said Martha Williams, Service Director, in a press release of the announcement.

Experimental populations have been used to advance the recovery of numerous endangered species, according to Fish and Wildlife, including  California condors, whooping cranes and Sonoran pronghorns.

If finalized, the proposed rule could have far reaching implications, including in Nevada, home to nearly 40 species of endangered plants and animals.

Dixie Valley Toad. (Center for Biological Diversity photo)

Nevada’s imperiled species range from the Dixie Valley toad, a small toad found only in a thermal spring-fed wetland in the remote Dixie Valley, to the Steamboat buckwheat, a woody flower found near the base of mountains in the Sierra Nevada range.

State wildlife managers in Nevada have expressed support for the proposed rule to move species to new habitats within the state.

“The establishment of experimental populations of protected plant species in suitable habitat and at climatically appropriate locations outside historical ranges may provide a key tool to preservation of biodiversity in Nevada,” wrote Nevada Division of Forestry officials  in a letter of support to the service. 

Conservationists in the state say when “viewed in good faith” and accompanied by “rigorous environmental review and public engagement,” the policy could allow species to thrive in a new habitat.

“That said, species are intricately evolved to the environment in their native range, and assisted migration is fraught with numerous issues, not least of which is a possibility that it will fail,” said Patrick Donelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which submitted a letter of support.

‘Appropriate reasons’

Researchers have observed that climate change and invasive species have already pushed animals into completely new geographic areas for their own survival. However, not all species can migrate on their own due to habitat fragmentation, mountains, rivers, or their own stationary nature.

Plants face such a predicament. In a recent collection of papers in the Journal of Ecology, a group of researchers estimated that under certain climate change scenarios 90% of 188 threatened plant species they analyzed may need assisted migration to cope with habitat loss.

Still, some endangered species are under assault not only from climate change but from habitat destruction, mining, energy development, and the spread of destructive invasive species.

Jamey McClinton, the supervisory botanist for the Nevada Division of Natural Heritage Botany Program, said climate change is a “pervasive and concerning” threat to many of Nevada’s rarest plant species.

However she warned that “only non-development-related pressures should be considered as appropriate reasons to establish experimental populations of rare plants outside of their historical range.”

“There are many rare and endangered species plants that occupy economically valuable habitats,” McClinton said. “That includes substrates that contain lithium or gold, but it also includes geothermal areas. There are rare plants in desert plains and valley bottoms that are attractive to renewable energy development and agriculture.”

Several imperiled species in Nevada are facing threats from mining and energy development, including the Tiehm’s buckwheat and the Dixie Valley toad.

Teihm’s buckwheat flower. (Photo courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity)

Ioneer, an Australian-based lithium mining company interested in developing a mine on the only known habitat of the buckwheat, funded a five-year study with the University of Nevada, Reno to conduct propagation and transplant trials of the flower in order to rehome the species.

McClinton, who previously worked as a field technician for the ioneer’s financed transplant trials, said there wasn’t enough research to determine whether the flower could be successfully moved out of its historic habitat or whether that would be best for the species. 

“It would need extensive research and a consistently implemented long term monitoring program, that’s what would be required to determine whether any species that’s endangered would qualify under this proposal. You need a lot of background research to know whether the existing habitat for any species is unlikely to support it in the future,” McClinton.

Thousands of Tiehm’s buckwheat – which are found nowhere else in the world – were destroyed in 2020 by ground squirrels gnawing on the roots for water, according to the agency. That incident, reduced the flower’s population by at least 50% and as much as 64%.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service linked the large-scale destruction of the buckwheat to ground squirrels seeking moisture due to current intense drought conditions. It was the first ever documented case of herbivory on Tiehm’s buckwheat, said BLM.

However, McClinton argued that a single “anomalous occurrence” wouldn’t “necessarily be enough to justify assisted migration.”

“It’s unknown at this point whether such herbivory has impacted the species in the past, the extent of its ability to recover from those types of disturbances, and what the long term consequences of events like this might be for the species,” McClinton said.

McClinton, who has done extensive research on transplanting buckwheat seedlings in response to a mining expansion, said the proposal could save imperiled species that can’t be protected using alternative conservation methods, but only as a last resort.

“It seemed the door had been left open for other types of threats besides climate change and invasive species to be considered. There might be other natural threats that are appropriate to consider but I think it’s important to clarify,” McClinton said.

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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