AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

The Moral Roots of Trees

By Richard Sniezko

By Richard Sniezko

Recently in Southern Utah it has come to the attention of many ecologists that the tree species, whitebark pines, is on the cusp of becoming an endangered species due to climate changes and droughts in the south. As a quick solution, some members of the scientific community have suggested “assisted migration” whereas humans would restore the whitebark pine population by dispersing its seeds from areas of the hot south to more adaptable, cooler weather up north.

To put this proposition to the test, graduate student, Sierra McLane, under Dr. Sally Aitken of the University of British Columbia, conducted a study and spread the seeds of whitebark pines throughout much cooler and consistent weather of the British Columbian mountain ranges. As a result, 20% of the seeds germinated and continue to grow here, allowing McLane to affirm that whitebark pines would successfully grow in the colder climate.

Despite her evidence, McLane, along with many other scientists’ “assisted migration” is bound more by an ethical dilemma than biological. Although it is clear that these whitebark pines are a crucial species to provide animals, like bears and birds, with food and shelter, some scientists are skeptical over how easily these animals will be able to adapt to the change in their location and others are morally conflicted over whether humans should interfere with nature thus changing the future. While assisted migration continues be deliberated by scientists as a possible solution to the threatened whitebark pine tree population, what is your attitude on the subject? Do you believe it is our moral responsibility to “take care” of the environment or should we not interfere with the natural selection of wildlife?

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  1. whitebloodcell

    Great article kation. I read an article on the assisted migration of whitebark pines ( and I have the same questions that you pose about what humans should do. It seems that the scientists conducting this experiment are able to effectively control the amount and spread of these trees in their new environment. However, I am not sure if humans should tamper with the ecosystem in that manner. I could more easily justify it if humans are directly causing the climate change that is killing these trees. However, I am unsure of how the whitebark pines will affect their new ecosystem, and that definitely has to be taken into account.

  2. simbiotic

    Great article Kation! I never knew there was even such a thing like assisted migration. Although I think McLane’s and other scientists’ results from the assisted migration are absolutely great, I do not think humans should get involved. Nature should be able to take its course and do what is necessary to ensure the best possible outcome for certain species. I do believe that we are morally responsible to take care of our environment- but in different ways. Sustainability, recycling, etc. are what we should do to take care of our environment, but assisted migration can potentially produce unpredictable and unintended results that can possibly destroy our ecosystems. Species can respond in different ways and we never know what the consequences of getting involved can be. Although we want to maintain the ecosystem’s health, we need to protect and preserve the ecosystem’s natural processes. This system has been working for a very long time- even before humans got involved- and should be kept how it is with minimal interference on our part since it has worked so well in the past. (

  3. nyrsoccer

    I do not think humans should assist nature. Nature has sustained itself throughout history even with changing environments. Animals and plants alike have been able to adapt to their changing environment. If a climate gets too hot or cold and a certain species disappears from the area, it is an opportunity for a new species to emerge. If the white bark pines die out in that area the animals can always migrate, or will adapt to having less of the trees. The plan to plant the white bark trees in colder climates has good intentions, but could mess up the ecosystem. It could be an invasive species by blocking sunlight or taking nutrients from other plants. Additionally it can simply die out in the colder climates. Mother nature always works itself out, and there is no point in humans trying to interfere. If we are to interfere in nature it should be in replacing (plant a tree for every tree cut down) rather than trying to create new ecosystems in places they were not intended.

  4. covalentbond

    “Each generation takes the earth as trustees.” -J. Sterling Morton

    Does natural selection still apply if humans contributed to the decline of a species? I think that while we shouldn’t be actively trying to kill of certain species and preserve others on arbitrary guidelines, it’s important to recognize that pollution and deforestation have greatly contributed to the decline of a number of species who once called places like the deciduous forest (where we live right now) home. So, if we’re going to affect the environment negatively, it’s our responsibility to make up for what we impacted.

    In this situation, we should try to replace however many trees were lost without making them the overbearingly most common type of tree. This way, we aren’t upsetting any balances as this balance has already existed and we are taking of animals that might not otherwise survive.
    This website has tons of scholarly articles and papers describing the effects of assisted migration, coming to the conclusion that “assisted migration [is] a necessary tool to keep forests healthy in a rapidly changing climate.”

  5. camouflage

    First of all, real punny with that title, definitely caught my eye. Secondly, I think it is definitely difficult to decide which path to take. It would be great to say we saved these endangered trees, but on the other hand it is forcing (and possibly harming) a natural process. In an article in Scientific American (, scientists note the extreme risk factor of assisted migration. Also, the author notes how more traditional conservationists are against this idea due to the unknown outcomes in the new community, but “active academia” are more pro-assisted migration. I find this funny in that it mirrors a liberal vs. conservative ideology spectrum in the science community as well. Awesome work with this it really made me think.

  6. gigabytes

    This is a very interesting article. It ties into both environmental and moral issues. I did some further research into the species and its threats ( and it seems like most threats to the species are parasites such as fungi and pine beetles rather than human-causes. I am similarly torn on the issue of assisted migration. I do feel that human intervention in nature is especially beneficial and necessary if a species was compromised due to environmental destruction by humans. Similarly, I also feel that with very in-depth scientific research, assisted migration could save a species from extinction with minimal impression upon the environmental landscape. It really brings into question the conflict of “is it worth altering a new environmental landscape in order to save a dying species?”

  7. fishinthesie

    I think that the idea of assisted migration has a good intention behind it, but it is clearly something that has come along because of global warming. While it’s only a temporary solution, this proves a bigger issue on global warming that is only recently being addressed in the UN. There are, I’m sure, many detriments to the niche of the animals that depend on the whitebark pines, or any other plant that has experienced assisted migration. I found another article that addresses climate change and how animals themselves have been adapting to the climate change we’ve caused.
    It also later discusses assisted migration. Unfortunately, it seems we will have to help out different plant and animal species, but we can only help so many and will have to choose ones to help such as the plants that feed the most animals.

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