Conservation translocation: helping endangered plants recover

When the only habitat left is in isolated patches, plants might need a little help spreading their seeds –  but concerns about ecological integrity are holding us back

  • Apr 18, 2024
  • 1,347 words
  • 6 minutes
Researchers loading wood-poppy plants for translocation. (Photo: Allison Scovil, Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo)
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“Left to time and chance alone, my cutover woods would probably never recover their leeks or their trillium. The way I see it, it’s up to me to carry them over the wall.”

~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass

Growing up in southern Ontario during the 1980s, I accepted the open landscapes of crop fields and pastures interspersed with small patches of forest as normal. My sister and I would venture through the fields to the little 10-acre forest at the back of our farm in Dufferin County, playing for hours in the wilderness of trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, and ferns. It was a revelation when I learned that once upon a time, forests dominated this landscape before they were decimated by “an army of axe-wielding settlers and woodsmen,” as described by  David Wood in his book, Making Ontario.

Today’s southern Ontario landscape consists of small patches of forest in a sea of farmland. (Image: Esri, Digital Globe, GeoEye, Earthstar Geographics, CNES/Airbus DS, USDA, USGS, AeroGRID, IGN, and the GIS User Community)
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Since the height of deforestation in the early 1920s, when total forest cover was reduced from at least 70 per cent to only 10 per cent of the land area, some forests have recovered, but only back to about 20 per cent. Nevertheless, the forests are irrevocably changed. Species like the American chestnut have gone extinct, a victim of the introduced chestnut blight (a parasitic fungus), and new, exotic plant species like eastern helleborine and garlic mustard have colonized. 

In my great-grandfather’s day (during the 1920s and 30s), they let livestock graze in the woodlots, which were regularly logged for timber. Farmers today still selectively harvest trees for firewood and tap the sugar maples to make maple syrup. Deforestation is still happening. With land prices skyrocketing, clear-cutting woodland is often the cheapest way to get more cropland. Meanwhile, forest clearing for suburban housing developments and highways continues.

Inside this small woodlot in southern Ontario, you can see the edge where the blue sky is visible and all the light is coming in. (Photo: Jenny McCune)
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This is the setting for a conservation quandary: how can we recover endangered plant species that rely on this forest habitat?

First and foremost, we have to prevent the destruction of forests where populations of endangered plants like American ginseng, drooping trillium, and large whorled pogonia still grow. But the word ‘recovery’ means increasing the size and number of populations of a species, not just preventing the destruction of the few populations we have left.

In some cases, species may be limited to a few sites simply because they are unable to reach viable habitats as a result of inhospitable crop fields blocking the way. Many plants that grow in the forest understory, like trilliums and bloodroot, produce seeds that are dispersed by ants – a method that limits how far they can go. On top of this, disturbed secondary forests might not have as many ants as those that were never clear-cut. So, in a landscape where the forest is highly fragmented and disturbed, why not give these plants a helping hand and “carry them over the wall”?

PhD candidate Emma Neigel plants a greenhouse-grown wood-poppy on protected land in southern Ontario. (Photo: Jenny McCune)
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What is conservation translocation? 

Planting endangered plants (or releasing endangered animals) with the aim of helping them recover is called conservation translocation. My colleagues and I at the University of Lethbridge, the University of Guelph, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Wilder Institute, and Kayanase are testing conservation translocation for the endangered wood-poppy, which has only five populations in Canada, all in southern Ontario. These plants produce hundreds of seeds each year, yet they don’t seem to be able to get to new habitats – perhaps because the seeds are ant-dispersed. We collected seeds from two of the wild populations and cultivated them in a greenhouse. Then, we used computer models to select sites on protected land with the right conditions. But first, we had to get permission to plant them.

Wood-poppy seeds. (Photo: Jenny McCune)
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Wood-poppy plants await planting. (Photo: Allison Scovil, Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo)
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What is ecological integrity?

One of the sites we selected as a place to plant the wood poppy is a provincial nature reserve in southern Ontario. We met with the managers of the reserve to discuss the project, and they asked what evidence we had to prove that the wood-poppy ever grew on this site. I replied that we had none. Information on historical populations of now-endangered plants and their precise locations is sparse, at best. However, there is currently a wood-poppy population about 10 kilometres to the south of the site, with a very similar habitat. The managers expressed concern about the ecological integrity of the site, which they are mandated to protect.

Wood-poppy seedlings cultivated from seeds collected in southern Ontario grow in the greenhouse. (Photo: Jenny McCune)
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Ecological integrity is a term baked into a lot of conservation policies, but it is not easy to define. According to Parks Canada, “…ecosystems have integrity when they have their native components intact”. The concept is linked to the idea of ‘naturalness’ and the ideal of wilderness (a state of nature not tampered with by people). In the Western worldview, it is antithetical to the ideal of wilderness to tend to the species living in it. Roderick Nash, a professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at the University of California, called the concept of wilderness management “somewhat oxymoronic” in his book Wilderness and the American Mind. Opponents of planting endangered plants to help them recover say this amounts to mere gardening. As a conservation biologist and lover of nature, I do value places with minimal human meddling. But, given how much we have already meddled with the southern Ontario landscape, I think it is time to rethink this hands-off ideal.

Impacts of fragmented forests on mammals 

We face similar challenges with some of Canada’s iconic animals. For example, woodland caribou are threatened due to the unbelievably dense crisscrossing of their forest habitat by seismic lines and other resource developments, resulting in unsustainable levels of predation by wolves. Even if we stopped all logging and development now, it would take at least several decades for the forest to recover – the caribou don’t have that long. So, First Nations and their partners have had to institute intense management practices, including capturing and penning pregnant females to protect them and their new calves from predators and controversial wolf culls. The woodland caribou will likely be conservation-reliant for many years, meaning they cannot persist without continuing human intervention. If we value caribou and want them to persist, we have no choice but to tend to them in this way.

The wood-poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) produces beautiful yellow blooms in mid-May. (Photo: Jenny McCune)
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Similarly, the current state of the eastern deciduous forests of southern Ontario (highly fragmented, altered, and isolated) may not allow species like the wood-poppy to persist. Therefore, we have a choice. We could decide to let the chips fall where they may. After all, the extinction of some species and expansion of others is just a natural part of the adaptation of the ecosystem to the changes we brought about. Or, we could roll up our sleeves and get to work. Not all endangered plants will be amenable to translocations, but we can help those that can be propagated easily to establish new populations on the landscape. If we learn how to plant them at the best times and in the best places, these new populations might require little or no tending by us. Indeed, a few captive-bred Ontario wood-poppies transplanted to a secluded ravine more than 20 years ago are still thriving there.

I’m happy to say that our translocation experiments went forward. The site managers decided that our research was not a threat to the ecological integrity of the nature reserve. To our delight, most of the wood-poppies we planted in three protected sites in southern Ontario made it through their first winter and produced flowers the next spring. Canada is lagging behind other countries when it comes to using conservation translocation to recover endangered plants, but I hope this is changing. The way I see it, there’s nothing wrong with tending to wild species to help them survive in the new wilderness we created.


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