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Rules of the wild

By Chris Berdik
October 12, 2008
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MOVING PLANTS OR animals to a cooler locale in the face of global warming isn't just scientifically tricky, it can be illegal as well. A thicket of federal and state regulations has grown up to safeguard certain species within well-defined boundaries and keep other, "pest" species out.

For instance, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service determines that a plant or animal is endangered, it creates a recovery plan to restore habitat, restrict land use, and otherwise protect and monitor the endangered wildlife in its historic range. But what if scientists predict that the historic range will soon be unfit for that endangered plant or animal due to global warming? At what point should the recovery plan and its restrictions be transferred to the species' proposed new home and abandoned in the old?

Likewise, every state has different laws regarding the protection and movement of wildlife. In Massachusetts, for example, it is illegal to move any wild animal without a permit. And for nearly three years, the state has also banned the importation or sale of invasive plants, a list that now includes about 140 species ranging from yellow irises to forget-me-nots.

Nevertheless, the Torreya Guardians broke no laws this summer when they transplanted baby Florida Torreya trees in North Carolina, even though the Torreya is a federally listed endangered tree. They acquired the seedlings legally from a nursery and planted them on private property.

"They did everything right," says Mark Schwartz, a University of California plant ecologist and Torreya expert who opposed moving it north. "But they did everything wrong."

It's not that Schwartz thinks that the slow growing Torreya, which needs cooperative squirrels to spread its large seeds, will become a weed in the forests of North Carolina. Rather, he says that private citizens moving a species around, even if they do so legally, "sets a risky precedent."

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