Wildlife in a Warming World

 

By Jennifer Hushaw, Applied Forest Scientist, Climate Services

 

For decades, global declines in biodiversity were primarily related to habitat loss, development, pollution, hunting, and other human influences, but evidence suggests we are moving into a new era. An era in which climate change will outmatch these traditional factors as the biggest driver of change. Warming temperatures and changing water availability will transform wildlife habitat, the timing of seasons, migrations and species’ ranges, and the range of certain pests and diseases.

 

To adapt, wildlife species must change where, when, or how they maneuver—this may involve moving into new regions, migrating earlier in the spring (as Manomet scientists have observed through our bird banding program), changing food sources, or other adjustments—and these changes are already happening.

 

In fact, the 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that “Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change.” However, the chief concern is that climate change may happen faster than the pace at which many of these species can effectively adapt.

 

With these challenges in mind, the forest managers and landowners who are part of Manomet’s Climate Smart Land Network have asked for more information about the ways climate change may affect wildlife on their land and what, if anything, they can do to hedge these changes.

 

The figure above outlines some of the characteristics that make species and populations more or less at risk from climate-related disturbance.

 

Concern for biodiversity is part of the good forest stewardship that is standard practice for these companies, but they are also assessing how a changing climate might require adjustments to their management strategies. Addressing these issues has the added benefit of satisfying requirements for third-party sustainability certification (which most of our members have achieved) and, for those that open their land to hunting, ensuring game species are plentiful for local outdoorsmen and women.

 

As part of our on-going series of monthly bulletins, we produced a two-part piece on climate change and wildlife to address these questions. For more detail on observed biodiversity shifts and how scientists expect things to change globally going forward, see Part I. For summaries of the latest research on several important wildlife and game species in North America, see Part II.

 

One of the species we highlighted in the CSLN bulletin is the iconic moose, which has experienced worrisome population declines in the northeastern U.S. in recent years. These declines have been linked to exploding tick populations related to warmer and shorter winters. Heavy infestations leave moose weak, vulnerable to disease, and at risk of cold exposure and death in cases where they rub off their insulating hair in an attempt to rid themselves of the ticks.

 

Photo by Kevin Crosby

 

As cold-adapted species, moose are generally considered to be highly vulnerable to climate change and will likely exhibit northward range contraction, some population declines, and behavioral changes to alleviate heat stress in the southern parts of their range.  We recommend that forest managers monitor for changes in moose browsing patterns and provide areas of high, dense forest canopy that moose can use to cool down during the warmest parts of the day.

 

There are several other strategies that forest managers can employ to promote resilience of wildlife populations and ensure that working forestlands also provide valuable wildlife habitat such as increasing habitat connectivity, reducing non-climatic stressors, planting less climate-sensitive species, increasing heterogeneity, and protecting refugia.

 

At Manomet, we understand that the value of working forests goes beyond their bottom line. By working with forest managers to develop climate smart management strategies, we are protecting and enhancing the critical habitat that these ecosystems provide.