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Wildlife agencies create a consensus plan for adapting to climate threats

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This report's sharp focus and broad buy-in will make it influential.

American wildlife will need a lot of human help to get through the coming era of climate change, from controlling invasive competitors to creating natural escape corridors via conserved, interconnected habitat.

And the nation's resource agencies need to improve their coordination starting now, with emphasis on critically important steps that can be taken in the next five years.

So says the National Climate Adaptation Strategy issued Tuesday. Two years in the making, it's a consensus roadmap built by an unusual collaborative of state, tribal and federal wildlife agencies, assisted by scientific, educational and conservation organizations.

In all, the authors say, some 55,000 individual Americans have contributed to this "first nationwide, joint adaptation strategy by the three levels of government that have primary authority and responsibility for the living natural resources of the United States."

In case that sounds like so much rehash to you, let me underline some things this new report is not:

  • It is not another survey of what we now know and don't yet know about patterns of climate change and their likely impact.
  • It is not a new program of rules or policy directives, and though Congress directed its creation it is not a top-down federal plan.
  • It is not a renewable-energy agenda that merely uses wildlife as window-dressing to attract more support.
  • It is not a feel-good stakeholder exercise in listing a bunch of win-win ways for polluters and conservationists to pluck and share some low-hanging fruit.
  • It is not even, primarily, a call for further research and deliberation, though the gaps in our current understanding are addressed in a can-do kind of way.

A call for concerted action

This is a call for adaptive action — swift and concerted action—using the tools and resources now available, by the very agencies already doing this kind of work, newly aligned behind a unifying strategy they wrote themselves.

I caught up with Jim Manolis, who leads the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources team dealing with climate issues, and he said he thinks the National Climate Adaptation Strategy "is going to be an important document."

Other reports have dealt with climate impacts on wildlife, he said, and intergovernmental cooperation isn't a new idea.  But this report's sharp focus and broad buy-in will make it influential.

Manolis is not praising his own handiwork here. DNR was not among the state-level collaborators, though some DNR managers took part in early discussions of the project within the national Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Whether agencies adapt their missions to follow the roadmap more closely or not, the ability to explain their programs in the context of a broad national consensus will probably make it easier to answer skeptics in, say, a legislative hearing or citizen forum.

The dollar worth of wildlife

The report is highly pragmatic, and part of its pragmatism lies in reminding Americans about the worth of wildlife as economic drivers. An excerpt, lightly compressed:

Hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-related recreation in the United States is estimated to contribute $122 billion to our nation’s economy annually.

The U.S. seafood industry — most of which is based on wild, free-ranging marine species — supported approximately 1 million full- and part-time jobs and generated $116 billion in sales impacts and $32 billion in income impacts in 2009.

Marine recreational fishing also contributes to coastal areas as an economic engine; in 2009, approximately 74 million saltwater fishing trips occurred along U.S. coasts, generating $50 billion in sales impacts and supporting over 327,000 jobs. Aquatic habitat and species conservation alone contributes over $3.6 billion per year to the economy in the U.S., and supports over 68,000 jobs.

Americans and foreign visitors made some 439 million visits to Interior Department lands in 2009. These visits supported over 388,000 jobs and contributed over  $47 billion in economic activity.

The National Climate Adaptation Strategy does not prioritize some species over others for protection efforts. It does provide examples of fish, animals and plants risk, including this one from our region. ...

The west fork of the Kickapoo River in western Wisconsin is an angler’s paradise. Its cool, shaded waters and pools abound with native brook trout. But brook trout require cold water to reproduce and survive — and water temperatures are already rising. By the end of this century, the self-sustaining population in the West Fork could be gone. In fact, up to 94 percent of current brook trout habitat in Wisconsin could be lost with a 5.4 °F increase in air temperature.

... and this one from farther afield:

Joshua trees are projected to be virtually eliminated from most of the southern portions of its current range by the end of the century, including Joshua Tree National Park. ... The management challenge will not be to keep current conservation areas as they are, but rather ensure there is a network of habitat conservation areas that maximizes the chances that the majority of species will have sufficient habitat somewhere.

Thus the top-ranked goal/strategy on the report's list of seven: protect and connect enough habitat that species driven from their current range by changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can find new homes elsewhere. On the positive side, I guess, the report suggests that much of this work can be accomplished without wholesale purchases of new public land, but rather through better use of planning, conservation easements and other flexible, inexpensive tools.

This will make the escape routes strategy more practical, but it will still be bitter pill for many lovers of wildlife, who value their parks and other protected properties because of the wild species they contain.

Alas, it may be the best we can do:

Many of our nation’s imperiled species (both those currently listed either as Threatened or Endangered as well as many other species that may eventually be considered for listing) do not occur in existing conservation areas. Indeed, the major threat to many species on the U.S. Endangered Species List is the loss of habitat caused when the habitat they depend on is converted to a different use.

Climate change will make the problem worse — and will make the need for new conservation areas more urgent. The most robust approach to helping fish, wildlife, and plants adapt to climate change is to conserve enough variety and amount of habitat to sustain diverse and healthy populations as landscapes and seascapes are altered. ... We will need well-connected networks of conservation areas to allow for the movement of species in response.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a free, two-hour webinar on the National Climate Adaptation Strategy at 1 p.m. Minnesota time on April 9. Interested? You can register here.

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