UMass report on climate change to help guide wildlife action plans in 22 states



Last modified: Tuesday, July 07, 2015

AMHERST — The work of University of Massachusetts Amherst climate scientists will be used in 22 states to inform decisions about how to protect vulnerable wildlife from the effects of climate change.

Michelle Staudinger, science coordinator for the Northeast Climate Science Center at UMass, was the project leader for the center’s effort to integrate possible impacts of climate change into state wildlife action plans, which are due to be updated this year in all 50 states. She and her team prepared a report to provide practical information for protecting species in the Northeast that could be threatened by climate change.

“We wanted to go beyond doing the science for the sake of doing science,” she said in her office at UMass. “We want it to be actionable.”

Staudinger’s report, co-written with UMass ecologist Toni Lyn Morelli and UMass postdoctoral fellow Alexander Bryan, reviewed at 300 species in a 22-state area from Maine to Minnesota and Missouri to Virginia.

Examples of vulnerable species include brook trout, American shad, Atlantic sturgeon, the wood turtle, several bat species, the Eastern hellbender salamander, piping plover, blackpoll warbler, wood thrush, moose and spruce grouse, she said.

Staudinger said she could not rank the species in the order of most vulnerable to least vulnerable because climate change will affect species in complex and varied ways.

“Coastal species are going to be vulnerable because the impacts of sea level rise are projected to reduce the amount of habitat available to them,” she said. For example, the piping plover — a coastal bird — makes its home in beach dunes likely to disappear as sea levels rise, she said.

Staudinger said cold-water fish such as brook trout are also particularly vulnerable because historic snow melt is likely to decline — meaning stream temperatures will rise.

Guiding state plans

The report can be used by individual state wildlife managers to prioritize conservation efforts in their particular states, Staudinger said, explaining that the report will provide those decision-makers with information they have not considered in the past.

“Historically, when we’ve set up protected areas like national parks, people have considered primarily the historical relevance of that location for wildlife or fish,” she said. “With climate change, we have to be more forward-thinking and look at what conditions are now — but also what they will be in the future.”

Staudinger said the deadline for states to update their plans is in October, so she and her team completed the report in time for it to be used for that purpose.

Included in the report are recommendations to improve monitoring systems to track animal populations and stream temperatures as they change.

Elizabeth Crisfield, of the Virginia-based environmental firm Terwilliger Consulting, said states need to complete wildlife action plans to qualify for federal grants, and to coordinate conservation efforts and guide their own conservation partners, such as land trusts and other nonprofit organizations.

Climate change is only one of the threats wildlife face, Crisfield said. Reflecting the threat of climate change in state wildlife action plans will provide wildlife stewards with more complete information, allowing them to coordinate with wildlife officials outside their states, she said.

“Climate change is very much a regional threat,” Crisfield said. “It is not the kind of threat where you just look within the state.”

Crisfield said she provided Staudinger and her team with 300 species to study that were native to the 22-state area and had been identified as vulnerable. While she is confident that the 300-species list represents the animals most likely to be affected by climate change, Crisfield said some invertebrates may be missing from the list, as those species tend to be less represented in conservation planning efforts.

Staudinger, who calls herself an optimist, said she does not believe conservationists should give up on any species. Having the greatest amount of biodiversity will help the human species continue to survive, she said.

“Often we don’t fully understand the exact role a species has in a community or ecosystem and how their removal might impact us,” she said. “Only when a species is gone does it become clear what their full role was.”

‘Common species’

John O’Leary, assistant director of wildlife with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said he is among the state officials crafting the Massachusetts wildlife action plan. He said the idea behind such plans is to “keep common species common.”

During the past 10 years, protected land in Massachusetts has increased from one-sixth of the state to one-quarter, according to a draft of the state’s 2015 plan. For the coming decade, the state is enacting a plan of proactive habitat protection, which includes areas vulnerable to expected results of climate change, such as rising sea levels.

O’Leary said after reviewing the Northeast Climate Science Center’s report and assessing the threats to cold-water fish such as brook trout, his office will look to preserve watersheds and take measures to keep water temperatures cold in the event of reduced snow runoff. Steps to maintain water temperatures can involve replacing culverts to keep water flowing and making sure storm water continues to replenish streams that may, in the past, have depended more on runoff.

“Everything is learning as we go,” O’Leary said of climate change. “The point in the climate science center bringing it to our attention is to put it on our radar screen to monitor these situations.”

Teasing out the impact of climate change from the effects of other factors in the environment can be difficult, O’Leary said. But, he added, it is an important aspect to consider when working to protect wildlife species.

Climate change may not serve as the highest priority in the updates to the state wildlife action plans, but implementing the plans may help allay future climate threats, Crisfield said.

“Everyone says the best things you can do are mitigate current threats so you have strong healthy habitats, which will be best able to adapt to climate change,” she said.

The full Northeast Climate Science Center report can be viewed online at: necsc.umass.edu/projects/integrating-climate-change-state-wildlife-action-plans.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


 


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