Risky or wise? Relocating fish in Montana to save them from warming waters

bull trout
CC BY 2.0 USFWS/Jim Mogen/flickr

Breaking one of the cardinal rules of contemporary conservation, scientists risk upsetting the ecological balance in order to protect a species.

Rabbits were introduced to Australia for food and hunting in the 19th century; the rabbits took over. Cane toads were brought to sugarcane plantations in various countries and are now the giant, poisonous, unrivaled kings of the amphibian mountain in spots across the globe. The Great Lakes are up to their necks in invasive zebra mussels; wild pigs brought to Hawaii are devouring native forests there.

One of the great lessons we’ve learned about nature is that we should keep our meddling noses out of it; at least when moving plants and animals around is concerned. So it was with no small degree of initial surprise when fish biologists in Montana first announced that they were relocating a number of bull trout to new areas since their traditional waters were heating up thanks to climate change.

The scientist say that they are hoping to save the species by seeding a new population in waters that will stay cooler longer. A Noah's ark redux, of sorts.

But they admit that it's a "roll of the dice that violates a basic rule of conservation,” writes Christopher Joyce on NPR. “If you want to keep the natural world 'natural,' you don't want to move plants and animals around willy-nilly.”

"My read on it then was that it bordered on the heretical," says Ben Minteer, an environmental ethicist at Arizona State University. But now Minteer has changed his tune. "The moral position, instead of hands-off, it might be hands-on," he says. "Our responsibility is actually to go in, pre-emptively relocate these species to give them a chance to survive."

While some biologists have moved trees and butterflies to cooler areas in to protect them from climate change, the project to move the bull trout in Montana is the boldest translocation yet, notes NPR. Bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) are members of the “trout” family Salmonidae, like salmon, grayling, and whitefish.

"The intention here is to save some of the last remaining bull trout populations and create new ones that will survive under a warming climate," says Clint Muhlfeld, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He explains that these fish are a threatened species and require very cold water in order to survive. In the meantime, they are being eaten by a non-native trout species and the waters are warming up quickly.

And so they are gathering up young fish, stowing them in special, oxygenated backpacks, and carrying them to a higher-elevation lake miles away where Muhlfeld says they have a fighting chance.

“We think they're going to do really well under future climate change,” he says.

The Park Service did comprehensive research to ensure that the upper lake could support a new species of fish that had never lived there before, and to be sure that it wouldn't threaten the other living beings that reside there.

Also working on the project is fisheries biologist Chris Downs from the National Park Service who says that the Park Service's mission to protect life in the nation's parks.

"I mean the time to act is now," Downs says. "We don't want to be looking back on this in 25 or 50 years and saying once again, we wished we'd done something when we had a chance."

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