Scientists Try Radical Move To Save Bull Trout From A Warming Climate Bull trout are dwindling in Montana as their home waters warm and invasive fish devour them. Scooping up threatened fish and moving them higher up the mountain could backfire. Is the risk worth it?
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Scientists Try Radical Move To Save Bull Trout From A Warming Climate

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Scientists Try Radical Move To Save Bull Trout From A Warming Climate

Scientists Try Radical Move To Save Bull Trout From A Warming Climate

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Something unusual is happening in America's wilderness. Some animals and plants are moving away from their native habitats. The reason is a warming climate. It's getting too hot where they are. But animals that can't migrate may perish, so some biologists are saying they should be moved. They admit they're rolling the dice with nature. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on one team that is taking that risk.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Conservationists have a rule. If you want to keep the natural world natural, you don't move plants an animals around willy-nilly. Why not? Well, Europeans introduced rabbits to Australia, and they overran the place. The Great Lakes are now infested with invasive zebra mussels. But a few years ago, some biologists began to question that rule. They said the planet is warming faster than many plants and animals can handle; maybe we should move some wildlife to cooler places.

BEN MINTEER: My read on it then was that it bordered on the heretical (laughter).

JOYCE: Ben Minteer is an environmental ethicist at Arizona State University. He and other conservationists thought such climate translocations were like introducing invasive species. They could upset nature's ecological balance. But Minteer has changed his mind.

MINTEER: The moral position, instead of hands-off, it might be hands-on. Our responsibility is actually to go in, preemptively relocate these species to give them a chance to survive.

JOYCE: Some biologists still say it's too risky, but others have replanted trees and moved butterflies to cooler regions. And now a team in Montana has undertaken one of the boldest translocations yet. They're moving an iconic Western fish - the bull trout - to protect it from climate change.

Logging Creek runs fast through tall forest in Glacier National Park. I'm thigh-deep and trying to keep up with biologist Clint Muhlfeld with the U.S. Geological Survey.

CLINT MUHLFELD: 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.

JOYCE: Bull trout are a threatened species. They're finicky. They need very cold water. Already, another kind of trout that's not native here is eating them, and a warming climate could finish this population off. So this team is moving them from where they are to a higher lake that's less vulnerable to warming.

Muhlfeld points to a spot on a map - bull trout territory.

MUHLFELD: We're hiking up the six-mile trail to the foot of Logging Lake.

JOYCE: There, they've got a 20-foot aluminum boat. They had to hoist it there by helicopter. We'll motor to the head of the lake and spend the night. Tomorrow, we'll capture juvenile fish, put them in special oxygenated backpacks and haul them up a mountain trail.

MUHLFELD: About two-and-a-half miles to Grace Lake, which is above a waterfall where we think they're going to do really well under future climate change.

JOYCE: Biologist Chris Downs from the National Park Service hands me a sidearm, a can of bear spray.

CHRIS DOWNS: You want to carry it in front of you. You want to be familiar with how to use it when the bear's approaching. And this one just simply fits loosely in its container.

JOYCE: I notice he says when the bear is approaching, not if. We hike for two hours - no bear, just bear scat. It's mostly uphill.

I guess we're about four miles up into the backcountry, still hiking up to where we're supposed to get the boat and cross the lake.

Another hour, and we reach the boat. We load our gear and motor off. I ask Downs if people think he's crazy to literally carry fish up a mountain to what they think will be a climate refuge.

DOWNS: You know, it raised some eyebrows, sort of meddling in a - in nature and a wilderness perspective, but it wasn't like it was something other folks thought was completely outrageous.

JOYCE: Last year was the first time they tried this. The captured 125 bull trout and moved them to the upper lake. This year, they don't know what to expect. Already, these lakes and streams are getting warmer.

DOWNS: I mean, the time to act is now. I mean, we might be looking back on this in 25 or 50 years and say once again that we wished we'd done something when we had a chance.

JOYCE: At dusk, we reach a cabin built in the 1930s. Grizzlies have scraped hunks out of the cabin logs with their claws. We eat dinner al fresco and collapse for the night. Next morning, we assemble our gear. We're going electro fishing in nearby streams.

MUHLFELD: So we've got how many batteries over there?

JOYCE: One person wears a backpack that generates electricity through a six-foot metal pole. When he pokes the pole in the water, it briefly paralyzes juvenile trout so we can scoop them up with a net. The terrain, though, is horrible. Fallen trees block the streams. Alder thickets and spiny devil's club bushes line the banks. It's sweltering in chest-high rubber waders. The electro-fishing backpack beeps annoyingly, but it works. Fish wriggle out from under rocks and tree roots.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, yeah. Look at that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What do we got there? What do we got? Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No. That looked like a bully.

JOYCE: We catch lots of fish, but they're the wrong kind - cutthroats and sculpins.

MUHLFELD: There's one right there. There's one.

JOYCE: Nope - another false alarm. In fact, for hours, not a single bull trout. Muhlfeld tries to be positive.

MUHLFELD: This is a grand experiment, you know? We're hoping it works. We think it will.

JOYCE: But it looks like the bull trout are just gone.

MUHLFELD: It just goes to show you how quickly things can change.

JOYCE: Then, a shout.

DOWNS: Yeah, all right.

JOYCE: Yeah. What'd you get?

DOWNS: We got a bull trout. Look at that beauty.

MUHLFELD: We got a survivor.

DOWNS: Gorgeous.

JOYCE: It's five inches long, blunt-headed and olive green. It swims in a plastic bag of water looking perplexed. Now the race is on to get the trout to the upper lake. Too long in the bag and it will asphyxiate, so Downs pumps oxygen into the bag from a small cylinder. Then the bag goes into a backpack, and we're off up the trail to Grace Lake, bull trout Shangri-la, a place with plenty of insects the trout can eat and relatively free of predators that would eat it.

Muhlfeld bolts ahead. When he's not biologizing, he's a professional mountain biker whose nickname is The Lung. An hour later, we reach the lake - clear water, no people and isolated from everything downstream by a 40-foot waterfall. Muhlfeld eases the plastic bag from the backpack and opens it.

MUHLFELD: All right.

JOYCE: I say, that fish traveled first class.

MUHLFELD: All this for one fish, but we're saving a species one fish at a time. Well, live long and prosper, young bully.

JOYCE: The trout hangs in the lake water for a moment, then slowly swims off - success. But I have to wonder, what's the big deal about bull trout? Why this Herculean effort? Well, for one thing, it's the most threatened native trout in these waters, and Downs says every species you lose makes the whole family more vulnerable to everything from disease to temperature change. But for Muhlfeld, it's really about helping a survivor.

MUHLFELD: The bull trout represents thousands of years of adapting to a changing climate - droughts, floods, wildfire, glaciation - a native fish that has survived those kind of cataclysmic occurrences throughout geologic time.

JOYCE: Helping an ancient fish survive a man-made threat, he says, is worth a role of the ecological dice. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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