Stacy Shelton is a Staff Editor for Vermont Journal of Environmental Law. This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate.
“If climate change continues unabated and as rapidly as a few models predict, saving at least some species will require solutions more radical than creating parks and shielding endangered species from bullets, bulldozers, and oil spills: It will require moving them.”
With millions of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from a blown-out well in the summer of 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners settled on a Hail Mary plan to save a generation of sea turtles: Translocation. Using specially outfitted FedEx trucks, federal and state biologists moved about 25,000 turtle eggs from Gulf of Mexico beaches to the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, away from the oil’s path. About half the eggs hatched, and the hatchlings were released into the Atlantic Ocean. In their calculation, the biologists had weighed the risks of reduced hatchling success and interfering with their ability to imprint on natal beaches by moving the turtles against the probability the hatchlings would swim into the oil and certain death if they remained in place.
Today, climate change has biologists working out similar but exponentially more complicated calculations in deciding whether to move species. Instead of simple translocation–which is the human-assisted movement of a species within its historic range—biologists are considering whether the ecological disruptions due to rising temperatures will necessitate moving species outside their historic range as their native habitats become inhospitable. Such assisted movement has been termed “managed relocation,” defined by scientists as the intentional act of moving a species outside its historic range in response to climate change. Similar terms for managed relocation are “assisted migration” and “assisted colonization.” The focus of this paper is on managed relocation and the legal, scientific, and political issues it raises.