The Hot Zone

Climate refugees or invading species? What to do with species on the move.

Posted by Alison Hawkes on October 27, 2010
Category : The man made climate

Previously  I wrote about the debate in the scientific community about recolonizing species into new areas as climate change forces them out of their old homes. Apparently, a similar debate is happening in the U.S. parks service.

I was at an event this week commemorating the opening of a Ocean Climate Center in San Francisco, a place where federal agencies can combine research and mitigation efforts on climate change. Frank Dean, the superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which spans some 60 miles of Bay Area coastline, underscored the conundrum parks officials are facing. They are truly in a tizzy.

“We’re supposed to let natural processes prevail and exotics are not welcome,” he said. “But if we have species fleeing (from other areas), what do we do from a policy standpoint? It will certainly rock our very core.”

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has stunning beauty but species in peril. Photo by Christian Mehlführer.

The debate is happening at Glacier National Park in Montana, too, where the piglike peccaries — also known as javelinas — have moved northward into the park and other areas.

These pig-like peccarieso on the move, their their native Southwest for the Rocky plains. Photo: Brian Gratwicke.

And in far northern climes like Alaska, roughly 60 percent of ecosystems will be shifting in response to climate change by the end of the century, according to a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Univ. of Alaska study. The study looked at caribou, Alaska marmots, trumpeter swans and reed canary grass in an attempt forecast where these species might be heading to next.

So what should be done about these newcomers? Should they be considered climate refugees — or exotic invaders? No doubt, they need help. But are they creating negative impacts on the species of their new homes? Would limiting their spread essentially condemn them to extinction?

I suspect some radical change in policy coming in the future at the national parks service and among natural resource managers. Whatever happens, there are no easy answers.

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