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Scientists move seabirds in hopes of protecting the species

With rising ocean waters affecting Hawaii due to climate change, scientists are moving chicks to a new island hundreds of miles away

Scientists want to save Tristram’s storm petrels in Hawaii by moving them to an island they have never inhabited. (Amanda Boyd/Associated Press)

In an effort to save a seabird species in Hawaii from rising ocean waters, scientists are moving chicks to a new island hundreds of miles away.

Moving species to save them, once considered a terrible idea, is quickly gaining traction as climate change damages habitats. Similar relocations are being suggested for birds, lizards, butterflies and even flowers. Concerns remain that the practice could cause unintended harm the same way invasive plants and animals have greatly hurt native species.

But for the Tristram’s storm petrels on northeastern Hawaii’s Tern Island, which is just six feet above sea level, the relocation of about 40 chicks to artificial burrows more than 500 miles away on Oahu could offer new hope. The species is considered vulnerable to extinction, and the goal is for the young petrels to return to their new home when old enough to breed.

“Tern Island is washing away,” said biologist Eric VanderWerf of the nonprofit Pacific Rim Conservation. “Climate change is causing a greater need for this, for taking a species outside its known historical range.”

A pending change to the Endangered Species Act by the administration of President Joe Biden would make it easier to relocate some of the species most in danger to places where they have not been recorded.

In response, state wildlife officials and scientists have suggested moving a portion of some species struggling with climate change, including the Key deer of southern Florida, the Karner blue butterfly of the Midwest and Northeast, desert flowers in Nevada and California, and the Saint Croix ground lizard in the Virgin Islands.

Republican lawmakers in Western states, including Arizona, Montana and New Mexico, are against the proposal, saying it could damage habitats as “invasive species” are purposefully introduced. To save storm petrels, VanderWerf said, scientists need to act before populations crash. “In 30 years, these birds will certainly be rare, if we do not do something about it,” he said.

The potential danger — and debate — lies in what humans cannot predict. Humanity has been moving species around for centuries, often accidentally, and sometimes causing great harm. Examples include Asian carp, which have spread through rivers and streams across the United States, and starlings from Europe, which have destroyed crops and driven out songbirds.

Scientist Mark Schwartz at the University of California at Davis said he was initially skeptical of moving species for conservation when biologists began discussing the idea about a decade ago. The rapid rate of extinctions more recently has him thinking that doing nothing could be a costly error.