Relocating Plants for Conservation and Restoration: Developing a Risk Assessment Framework

Fiscal Year: 
FY'17
Project Leader: 
Research Partners: 
Robert Venette
Project Fellows: 
Status: 
Ongoing
Science Themes: 

There is growing interest in the facilitated movement of plants as a means of conserving or restoring species and habitats, as climate conditions and management goals change. For example, plants might be relocated to support pollinator conservation or the restoration of prairies. Some land managers, in an effort to be proactive in the face of changing environmental conditions, are also considering relocating plants to sites that are considered more similar to anticipated future conditions. However, moving plants can be ecologically and economically risky. It’s possible that pests, pathogens, or contaminant weeds can be inadvertently moved along with the target plant material. In 2016, the noxious weed Palmer amaranth was introduced to Minnesota as a contaminant in seed brought in to improve Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. This fast growing weed is capable of reducing soybean yields by 78% and corn yields by 91%, and requires costly resources to fight its spread.

One factor that impacts the risk associated with plant movement is the distance between the source of the plant and where it is being relocated to. If the source is located near the translocation site, it is less likely to be contaminated with new weeds or pathogens. The goal of this project is to create a framework for evaluating risk associated with the movement of plant material. The first tier of the framework will describe the future condition of the species, site, or community of concern, if plant movement is implemented and if it is not. The second tier will assess the ecological risks associated with moving plant material. This will include identifying potential pathogens, weeds, and pests that might be associated with plants from different areas and could be inadvertently introduced during translocation, and evaluating the potential harm these species might cause if introduced. The benefit of such a framework will be to greatly reduce the likelihood of unintended introductions of pests and noxious species. It will also take into account the ability of plants to adapt to expected future environmental conditions in their new locations. This work will support a range of stakeholders, including private, state, federal, and non-profit land managers who undertake planting for conservation or restoration.

Once the risk assessment framework is complete, researchers will test it for prairie restoration. This project will focus on the states of Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota, but the results will also be broadly relevant to grassland managers in the central U.S.