Trading Places


Let’s say you chose the neighborhood you live in because everything you needed – grocery store, school, park, a bank, your job – was within walking distance or a short commute. Imagine, then, that year after year changes beyond your control began to push all of this slowly out of reach. The bank relocated a few miles to the north, the grocery store moved up the hill, the school relocated across town. Suddenly, you find yourself traveling farther and working harder to sustain your household.

This is, in effect, what’s happening to wildlife worldwide as climate change alters conditions that species from the Arctic to Antarctica have relied on for millennia. As greenhouse gas levels and temperatures rise, seasonal events that have been generally stable for millions of years are slipping out of balance. Consequently, many plants’ and animals’ neighborhoods – their ecosystems – are changing rapidly, making their lives a lot more stressful.

artwork showing cranes (birds) standing together, cityscape silhouette in backgroundIllustration by Lisel Jane Ashlock,

Or as Dee Boersma, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, has said of the Magellanic penguins she studies on the coast of Argentina, which are being forced to travel farther in search of food: “Imagine buying a house in the suburbs of Chicago so you can commute to your job in Chicago and suddenly your job is switched to Des Moines.”

The pace of global warming is affecting species far beyond the shores of South America. According to a study published in the journal Nature in December 2009 and led by scientists from the California Academy of Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, the average ecosystem will need to shift about a quarter-mile a year for species to find what they need to survive. Which direction – north, south, east, west, up or down slope – will of course vary by location and habitat conditions. Complicating the situation is the fact that, largely because of human development, some species will have a difficult time making the move.

The Nature study found that species whose habitats are currently protected and unfragmented will fare better than those living in areas significantly impacted by humans. But most of the places now set aside as nature reserves, the study found, are not big enough to accommodate species if the current pace of climate change continues. Some plants and animals will have nowhere to go.

This is, obviously, bad news for a wide range of flora and fauna. It’s also troubling to the human allies who have dedicated themselves to preserving species’ habitats. As ecosystems relocate in adaptation to temperature increases, wildlife biologists and conservationists are struggling with new questions about how best to protect vulnerable species. Environmental advocates are prompted to wonder: Are the ways in which we protect landscapes and wildlife up to the challenges of climate change?

The twentieth century’s conservation strategies depended largely on drawing lines on maps to put certain locations off-limits to human activities. The idea was to keep the human world at bay and preserve special landscapes and wildernesses. But in skewing the climate, humanity has jumped those boundaries and impacted the places we sought to preserve. In the the era of global climate change, the concept of strictly place-based conservation may have to be reconsidered. Because the old lines, it turns out, are insufficient. Unless they are expanded, redrawn, or in some cases entirely rethought, they could fail in their goal of protection.

The predicament of species that are dependent on temperature-sensitive environments – Arctic fish and marine mammals, for example – illustrate what’s at stake. These species are, in the words of Daniel Pauly, professor at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Center, “specialized to ice” – and they are now at great risk. If temperatures continue to warm, and the ice continues to dwindle, eventually their space will be invaded by more southerly species moving north in search of optimum temperatures. Unable to find a suitably cold environment, the ice-dependent species, says Pauly, “will go extinct.”

That climate change is affecting marine and terrestrial species in habitats ranging from wetlands to deserts, and from high-altitude mountains to oceans, is by now well documented. Still, the findings bear repeating as a reminder of the profound ways in which we are upsetting the globe’s ecosystems.

Climate Change Has Flora and Fauna on the Move. What Does that Mean for Conservation Strategies Tied to Lines on a Map?

Rising temperatures are melting glaciers and reducing sea ice cover. They are changing patterns of precipitation and the spring runoff that replenishes streams. They are exacerbating droughts and storm surges, and transforming coastal and inland wetlands. Greenhouse gases are warming and acidifying oceans. On land and sea, these altered temperature patterns are changing when and where plants germinate, invertebrates hatch, and where and when animals feed, nest, den, give birth to and nurture their young.

“There are five or six issues that keep us up nights,” says Steve Murawski, director of scientific programs and chief science advisor for the US National Marine Fisheries Service. “One of those is the effect of climate change on marine species.”

Murawski explains: “This is happening in a fairly dramatic way. Ocean species are very temperature sensitive. Some species are moving northwards or polewards. Some are going deep in search of cooler temperatures. This is particularly evident in the Bering Sea, where a whole suite of species are moving northwards. But we’re seeing this all over the globe.”

Like high in the Colorado Rockies, where small mammals are experiencing dramatic, and sometimes deadly, changes. Anthony Barnosky, professor of biology at UC Berkeley, has studied the region and found that “year by year, more marmots were seeing snow instead of salad when they awakened, emaciated from hibernation.” As a result, Barnosky explains in his book, Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming, “A higher percentage of the population … was spending too much energy awake when they should have been conserving energy asleep. Which means death.”

The Grinnell Resurvey Project, in which biologists revisited mountain areas of California first surveyed a century earlier, found that by 2008 all of the small mammals originally observed were still there, but their ranges had shifted considerably. Some lower-altitude species had moved uphill, some had moved lower down in search of water, while others had moved in various directions, simply to avoid crowding.

Similar patterns are being observed with marine species. “The more changes there are, the more trouble you can expect,” UBC’s Pauly says. “Species are moving to maintain temperature. They are trying to generate what they know.”

While the pace of these changes may seem imperceptible from the casual human perspective, in geological terms the pace is astonishingly swift. In fact, Baronsky writes, “Earth has not experienced a similarly fast rate of climate change within at least the last 60 million years.”

What makes global warming such a challenge for traditional conservation methods is that these changes are taking place without regard to political boundaries and that they are prompted by activities that may originate far from where vulnerable species live. Complicating this scenario is the fact that the impacts of global warming are typically just one of many factors threatening wildlife and ecosystem health. For most plants and animals, the climate-change induced stressors come in addition to others such as chemical pollution, disease, industrial development, and hunting – factors that can act synergistically.

Historically, we’ve preserved treasured landscapes by creating legally protected wilderness areas, parks, and nature reserves on land and, more recently, also at sea. Within the boundaries of these areas we have prohibited certain acts such as resource extraction, motor vehicle use, and hunting. Similarly, we’ve sought to protect ecologically vulnerable and geographically rooted species (think: spotted owl or red-legged frog) by restricting commercial activities in some locations. Both efforts are pegged to the assumption that specific species and places are inextricably linked. Now climate change is challenging that premise.

The diffuseness of global warming’s causes (a hundred coal plants here, a million automobiles there) is testing our strategies for protecting wildlife and ecosystems. In the past, most threats to ecosystems were relatively local or direct in impact: a specific mine or a certain tract of forest slated for logging. Even shutting down a smokestack that was releasing pollutants that produce acid rain is far simpler than curtailing the forces set in motion by the atmospheric overload of greenhouse gases. While climate change is taking place on a global scale, its impacts are being felt most acutely in the world’s biological niches – in uniquely sensitive places.

“There’s nothing wrong with lines on maps. But historically they’ve been drawn assuming static climate,” says Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of the Sierra Club. Today, Hamilton says, we’re faced with the challenge of protecting ecosystems threatened by planetary forces. To respond to the shifting dynamics, he says, what we need is “ecosystem-based climate-smart management.”

When wilderness areas and national parks were first developed in the United States, Hamilton explains, it was with a hands-off, let-nature-take-its-course philosophy. That’s the ideal underlying, say, the creation of Glacier National Park. But what if climate change’s “unnatural natural processes,” as Hamilton calls them, make the park unrecognizable? The craggy mountains there will always be awe-inspiring. But what happens if all the glaciers melt, and the bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and grizzlies disappear? Some of the drama of the place will be lost – and perhaps also some reasons for preserving it.

The other philosophy underlying public land management policies, Hamilton says, is what might be characterized as conservation aimed to bolster natural resources. Think national forests and timber, for example. What happens when great swaths of the national forests disappear as pine beetle infestations move across the landscape? Might there then be less of a motive for continuing to protect those areas?

The predicament of cranes is a vivid example of what happens when changing temperatures alter migration patterns and push a species into unfamiliar territory. “In recent years, Eurasian cranes are wintering much farther north than they used to,” says George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. “They used to winter in Spain. They now winter in France and Germany. The sandhill cranes that used to go to Florida are now wintering in Tennessee. The Siberian cranes that used to winter in India, now winter in Afghanistan.”

One of the biggest challenges cranes face is rising temperatures that are changing the moisture patterns of wetlands. “Wetlands are one of the most endangered habitats,” Archibald says. “If drought comes to more of these areas, as it has in the part of Texas where endangered whooping cranes winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, more birds will lose their sources of food.”

The cranes have shown themselves to be strongly connected to particular wetlands. “Twenty-four out of 270 cranes were lost in Texas due to starvation when the area was too dry,” Archibald says. “The birds are very tied to that site.” So tied to that location, he tells me, that when conditions changed, “the birds never moved out even though they could have found what they needed, even in nearby Louisiana.”

On the other side of the world, when cranes have moved in search of more temperate wintering grounds, they moved into gun sights. “The cranes are hunted in Afghanistan while they were not in India,” Archibald says.

Continents away, on the coast of Argentina, Dee Boersma has observed male penguins moving out of their protected reserves as they swim farther and farther to find food – in the process depleting their stores of energy and increasing risk to chicks left behind with their mothers waiting for the next meal. If the males are gone too long, the hungry females abandon their nests to search for food.

This disturbing evidence raises the question of how intensely and on what scale we should intervene in “natural” systems as we seek to help wildlife. Should we be acting on behalf of individual plants and animals, working habitat by habitat to save certain species? Or should we focus our remedies at a broader scale? For example, the International Crane Foundation has an active captive breeding and reintroduction program. But ultimately, if their species is to recover, the birds need viable habitat outside of a controlled environment, as do any other animals in such conservation efforts.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is trying to bridge this tension through a strategy that addresses climate change both globally and locally. The center is pressing for the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Air Act and set caps on greenhouse gas emissions that would reduce atmospheric carbon levels to 350 parts per million or less. “We need to reduce emissions to a level that doesn’t jeopardize wildlife or endanger public health and welfare,” says Shaye Wolf, a staff biologist with the group. “We’ve already damaged the planet, and based on what we’ve already emitted we’re committed to more damage.”

At the same time, the center is working aggressively to protect individual species threatened by climate change. Having led the first successful effort to gain Endangered Species Act protection for an animal threatened by climate change – polar bears – CBD has filed endangered species listing petitions on behalf of more than a hundred additional species, including walrus, seals, penguins, the American pika, and 83 species of coral.

“The Endangered Species Act has really stood out as an effective tool as it has a whole suite of provisions to protect wildlife populations and habitat,” Wolf says. In addition to enforceable measures that protect wildlife where it lives, the law allows for protection of habitat outside a species’ existing range if that new territory is critical to the species’ recovery and future survival. This will be key to helping wildlife survive the relocations prompted by climate change. “There’s a lot of climate modeling going on to see where habitat will be as conditions change,” Wolf says.

While in theory the Endangered Species Act has the potential to protect wildlife threatened by climate change, Wolf cautions that achieving these protections is proving a challenge. “There’s a lot of lip service to what needs to be done to protect species from impacts of climate change, but implementation and policy actions are coming more slowly,” she says. The center’s efforts have encountered pushback from The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), says Wolf.

The American pika, and two ice seals – the ribbon seal and spotted seal – were denied endangered species listing even though, in the center’s view, the science calls for listing. The FWS also denied full listing for Kittlitz’s murrelet, what Wolf describes as a glacier-dependent bird because it feeds in the coastal outflows of glaciers. “Where it lives in Southern Alaska there’s been a 80 to 90 percent decline in numbers over the last couple of decades, and it’s listed as critically endangered by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature],” she explains. Yet the Fish & Wildlife Service has only granted it “candidate” status under the Endangered Species Act.

Given the challenges in this era of climate change, perhaps what we need is a whole new set of conservation laws to protect vulnerable species. What’s required, according to Hamilton, is “not new legal tools, but more imaginative landscape-wide thinking.”

The Sierra Club is calling for a strategy that creates what Hamilton refers to as “climate refugia” – areas of protected core habitat surrounded by buffer zones and connected by migration corridors. Hamilton emphasizes the need to work toward the goal of preserving fully functioning ecosystems, which often stretch beyond current protected zones. This would either involve expanding the hard lines of protected areas (politically a tough sell, since some already-established preservation areas are under constant attack by industry) or establishing a second, fuzzier line to create a buffer zone of mixed use. “We need to focus on building resilient habitats and reducing stressors, and maximize natural systems that support biodiversity,” Hamilton says.

Among the practical challenges to this strategy is the fact that so many wildlife refuges are small and isolated. This is a problem both on land and at sea.

“We need to rapidly set up a network of marine protected areas,” Daniel Pauly says, adding that these areas need to be large enough to rebuild what he calls marine biomass – more fish and more aquatic species overall. This is particularly important, he says, in coastal areas that support a great diversity of species. “The more biomass you have, the more opportunities there are to adapt, in the Darwinian sense,” he tells me.

Ideally, Pauly says, we’d even have marine protected areas that could move. If endangered species’ range becomes mobile, the conservation areas will have to move, too.

When it comes to long-distance travelers like cranes, the limitations of isolated reserves are already prompting some novel conservation strategies. For example, George Archibald describes how the International Crane foundation has been helping to organize seminars for mullahs in countries where cranes are now gathering, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. “There have been lectures based on the Koran about protecting the environment, and posters in local languages have been put up in mosques,” Archibald says.

Despite the reluctance to expand the number of species listed as endangered, US federal wildlife and land management policies are beginning to examine the establishment of networks, corridors, and protected core habitats to allow wildlife to move in response to climate change. The Department of Interior has launched a “Climate Change Response Strategy” that calls for “landscape-level” efforts that will engage all levels of government and the public. The Fish & Wildlife Service’s “Conservation in Transition” report lays out plans – developed with an array of public agencies as well as environmental groups, businesses, and the public – to protect key coastal habitat, migratory bird breeding grounds, and core habitat for waterfowl. These efforts, however, are just getting underway.

Provisions that address wildlife protection are also part of the climate change legislation now awaiting congressional action. But here again, Wolf, voices caution. She notes that the greenhouse gas reductions currently in the bill would fall far short of reducing atmospheric carbon levels to 350 ppm or less.

“We’re seeing alarming impacts and trends coming in the next decade and we have an accelerating rate of new studies documenting alarming adverse impacts,” Wolf says. “We always need to advance science, but we know enough now to take action. We can’t waste any more time. We need all hands on deck now.”

“Every place is somehow affected by land use or the toxics we spew out, so we’re going to have to manage in lots of different ways,” Dee Boersma says. “Humans have changed the world so much that we’re going to have to decide what we want and don’t want.”

If we decide we want penguins, whooping cranes, polar bears, ice seals, pika, and corals, it will mean protecting not only those specific species, but also giving equal attention to anchovies, plankton, invertebrates, and inland wetlands. That is, for conservation to succeed in the age of global warming we must, however belatedly, start taking the concept of the interdependent environment seriously. Protecting the natural world must become less about single rare species and isolated habitats and more about ecosystems – which, as systems, are dynamic and ever-shifting. Defending only attention-grabbing charismatic megafauna will not be sufficient. Conservation will have to take place on a much broader landscape scale than it has historically. We will have to continue protecting the places we’ve long treasured, while making room for where wildlife needs to be.

Although we did not ask for it and may not want it, climate change is forcing a breakthrough moment in the history of conservation. It is challenging us to truly understand the interdependence of all species – including, as Aldo Leopold observed, the ecological necessity of our part in this complex web. Our task, suddenly, is not just to protect the most special places, but to preserve every place. With global warming we have given ourselves the responsibility to conserve the entire globe.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author, most recently, of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry (Shearwater). Her last article for the Journal was about climate change’s impacts on deep-water corals (Spring 2009).

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