Conserving the Nature of America in a Changing Climate

Nature astounds and inspires us with its diversity
of oceans and wetlands, forests and grasslands. These special places play a vital role in
the production of the planet’s oxygen, drinking water, and rainfall. They also produce a rich
abundance of fish, wildlife, and plant species, and sustain our lives and nurture our spirits.
Our nation’s culture, health, and economic well-being are tied to this interconnected
web of life. But accelerated global climate change is changing the natural world as we
know it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conserves our nation’s heritage of wild things
and wild places. This task is made more difficult by challenges such as habitat destruction,
fragmentation, invasive species, and water scarcity. Now, worldwide scientific consensus
tells us that human activity is changing the climate system itself. As climate changes,
the abundance and distribution of wildlife and fish will also change. Some species will
adapt successfully to an abruptly warming world, many will struggle, and others will
disappear. Endangered and threatened species now living at the limits of survival are vulnerable.
As are those living within confined geographic ranges with limited abilities to move rapidly
in response to changing climate. Barriers to migration, increased competition for habitat,
and the lack of suitable or available food could make things difficult for species moving
to new locations. “In the Florida Keys we have more than 20 federally listed threatened
and endangered species from the Shoust’s Swallowtail Butterfly to a number of plant species, up
to the more well-known Key deer and all of these species are for the most part restricted
to here being here in the Florida Keys. So as we lose habitat, we may literally lose
species that are found nowhere else.” In addition to terrestrial species, aquatic resources
are declining at alarming rates due to habitat loss, contaminants, invasive species, overexploitation,
and most recently, diseases; stresses that are exacerbated by climate change. Increasing
human population will intensify the competing needs of cities, agricultural areas, and wildlife.
In a changing climate, effective management of vital natural resources such as clean water
will be of even greater importance in the sustaining habitats that support plants, animals,
and people. “Our freshwater species are disproportionately in peril as compared to other plants and animal
species in the U.S.. Of about 880 freshwater fish species, 37% are in need of conservation
action. 70% of our freshwater mussel species are seriously imperiled and many are already
listed as threatened or endangered. Climate change is likely to impact fish habitats.
As fish habitats decline, so do the numerous values they provide for natural resources,
human health, and a sound economy. Recreational fisheries help generate hundreds of millions
of dollars in local economies throughout this country. If climate change diminishes the
quality and quantity of our aquatic habitats that will have a profound impact on these
special places and the people and wildlife that depend on them.” As the nation’s principal
federal conservation agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is dedicated to helping
species adapt to a rapidly warming climate. Our 8,000 employees specialize in wildlife
management and ecosystem dynamics and have an extensive network of partners who work
alongside us to protect our nation’s fish and wildlife. Dealing with climate change
is not a solitary endeavor. Close collaboration with partners is critical to this process.
It requires a landscape conservation approach emphasizing large areas with interconnected
and ecologically functional habitats capable of sustaining many species. “The service and
the public are going to have to help plants and animals move across the landscape to keep
pace with climate change. In many cases this means establishing or maintaining a corridor
of habitat across the landscape in the direction that the plants and animals are going to be
moving in order for them to have a place to go. In many cases we’ve actually severed these
connections with roads, development which these plants and animals can’t cross, so where
these corridors still exist and are intact we want to try to maintain them. And where
they’ve been severed, we want to try to reconnect them.” One expected effect of climate change
is sea level rise. At Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, resource managers
are monitoring climate change impacts using a special climate model that measures the
effects of sea level rise on marshes. “The loss of 8,000 acres of brackish marsh habitat
has a significant impact on what’s going on out here. These marshes are important to more
than just wildlife. These marshes are critical to not only the local economy, because these
marshes support the local fin and shellfish industries, they’re important to the health
of the Bay, they also provide wildlife viewing opportunities for ecotourism as well as help
to buffer storm effects to the local community. We will continue to lose marsh habitat as
a result of sea level rise as well. The model will help us to identify those places where
we will be able to maintain marshes in the long run and help plan future management activities.”
Climate modeling is also being used in the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex
where wildlife viewing is a major tourism activity. “Our highest priorities right now
for assessing and adapting to the impacts of climate change would be to take some of
the large and complicated scientific models that tend to be global and regional in scale,
and bring them down to the local level so that we can better predict what the impacts
might be, the time frame in which we can expect those impacts, and what types of strategies
we should implement in order to prepare for the changes that we might see.” The impacts
of climate change reach far beyond coastal areas. From melting sea ice in the arctic,
to water scarcity in the southwest. In the upper Midwest, thousands of shallow wetlands
known as prairie potholes are remnants of retreating glaciers from the last major ice
age. Thousands of waterfowl and other grassland birds rely upon these lands and waters to
continue self-sustaining populations. The area is home to more than 50% of North American
migratory waterfowl with many species dependent on the potholes for breeding and feeding,
and thousands of duck hunters and communities rely upon the seasonal activity of waterfowl
hunting. As the climate warms, farmers in the region will be able to plants crops farther
north, converting native prairie and wetlands to agricultural fields. The conversion of
virgin prairie where cattle graze, to planting of row crops will mean more carbon in the
atmosphere and loss of wetlands for waterfowl breeding. “If we see a continued conversion
of the grassland, loss of the wetlands there’s going to be a reduction in the migratory bird
production on our North American continent. And that’s going to have a huge impact on
those that are interested in hunting or those that are interested in bird watching. There’s
a tremendous industry associated with tourism and visitation to refuges and other wildlife
areas and the interest obviously is going to go down if there isn’t the production there,
if there isn’t the number of birds there that people are going to be able to enjoy.” Understanding
the impacts of climate change on wildlife is critical to developing an effective course
of action. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey along with
key conservation partners have held regional forums to collect information for a variety
of landscapes and inform the service’s strategic action plans for climate change. The plan
provides flexibility for managers to be responsive to evolving science and technology. It also
calls for training our workforce in the basics of climate change science and adaptive landscape
conservation approaches that will help us succeed in the face of a changing and uncertain
future. “If we’re going to be successful in conserving the nature of America, then we
simply have to understand the causes and the effects of a changing climate system and what
that means for fish and wildlife populations. The service has a good beginning with our
drafts for teaching and action plans. But we need to recognize that we can’t address
something as large and encompassing as climate change from within the footprint of our own
organization. So we are really dependent on building relationships with partners as we
try to address this challenge. Much like we do in conservation day-to-day but on an even
larger scale. We need to look for new partnerships with the scientific community and with the
conservation community, we need to look for new ways to speak to the public and inform
the public about what we’re doing and why, and why responding to the changing climate
is an important aspect of wildlife conservation.” America has faced adversity in the past, from
the severe droughts of the 1930’s to the environmental effects of chemical pesticides, to the ongoing
challenges of recovering threatened and endangered species. The warming of the earth could potentially
have more far-reaching impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat than any challenge that
has come before. This is why the women and men of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
have chosen a career of public service. To deal with issues of consequence and make a
difference for our nation. Together with our partners, we will face the challenges of our
time and change the future for the better. “Our mission is not only protecting the wildlife
and their habitats for present generations, but for future generations and that’s really
what I feel that I have a responsibility and a stewardship is for looking out for the future.
It would be easy for me to put on the blinders and think I’ll be here for the next 5 or 10
years and that’s what I’m going to focus on, but it’s difficult for me to do that when
I read about climate change and I have concerns about these species and what kind of a legacy
can we leave for our children and our grandchildren. So I think it’s really important for us to
be addressing these issues.”

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