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Feds: Fish and wildlife need climate-change armor

What should we do to prepare for climate change impacts to fish and wildlife species?

What should we do to prepare for climate change impacts to fish and wildlife species?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released it’s final Climate Change Strategic Plan, calling for “bold, aggressive action” to armor its turf against climate change impacts.

Research has linked climate change to increasing size and frequency of wildfires, insect outbreaks, wildlife diseases and tree mortality in the West, and evidence shows it’s heating up water and hurting fish that depend on colder temperatures. Sea level rise and ocean acidification are changing fish and wildlife habitat along the coastlines, and changing water flows could leave some species high and dry. (Here’s a primer on predictions for the Northwest.)

So, what do we do now? This new strategic plan paints a picture of how science can help fish and wildlife adapt to a changing climate, and how governments can reduce impacts and build an arsenal of data-driven defenses.

Much of the fish and wildlife climate-defense strategy boils down to scientific study of several questions:

  • Where will climate change strike hardest?
  • Which fish and wildlife species are most vulnerable?
  • How can we protect vulnerable species from uncertain threats?

The next generation of climate science is already cranking out data that will allow agencies to model the most vulnerable fish and wildlife species and the areas that would most benefit from strategic habitat improvement.

However, according to David Patte, U.S. Fish and Wildlife assistant regional director for external affairs in Oregon, the effort still has a ways to go.

Newly formed Landscape Conservation Cooperatives covering eight regions across the country will bring scientists, nonprofits, tribes and agencies together to organize new studies and pool climate science and deliver specific data on issues that affect fish and wildlife.

“The most important development for us is trying to create scientific and technical support for landscape conservation,” Patte said. “This is such a large issue that changes rapidly with new information and new data. You really have to look at large suites of information and ecosystems and try to figure out from there the vulnerable species, habitats and wildlife corridors. Before you do that you have to do a lot of assessments.”

The coops will zero in on vulnerability assessments, he said.

“We want to know what the current landscapes look like, and how they are changing due to various stressors,” said Patte. “Do we need to look at different management schemes, or just be more protective of certain areas? All those kinds of questions can’t be answered until you have more science that assesses different aspects of conservation biology.”

The groups will seek answers to critical questions such as: Where could water temperature and availability become a problem for fish and wildlife species as climate change effects kick in? And where should agencies apply habitat improvements such as invasive species removal, tree planting or forest thinning to make the landscape more resilient to climate impacts?

Meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife is also following Department of the Interior marching orders to track and reduce its own carbon footprint and energy usage. In Oregon, the agency is planning to reduce travel by 20 percent of 2009 levels by holding more conference calls, and it already pays more to purchase renewable energy for its Portland headquarters.

Officials are looking at ways to sequester more carbon on federal lands - by replanting lost forestland or managing existing forests to maximize their carbon storage, for example.

They’re also looking to other research groups who are refining the next generation of climate science specific to the Northwest:

“In the Pacific Northwest, we’re really fortunate to have climate impacts groups that have done numerous assessments and studies about how climate change will affect all three states,” Patte said.

“They try to scale it down so you can see the differences between east of the Cascades and west of Cascades topography, and all the local climatic effects that global models aren’t designed to pick up. All that kind of science is in the background and forms the basis for what we are trying to do. We take all those data sets and ask: ‘If these kinds of things are happening, what does it mean for habitat, fish and wildlife species with different sensitivities to climate?’”

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