US Governments Propose Wildlife Climate Adaptation Strategy

    By Dianne Saxe, Ontario Environmental Lawyer

As hundreds of starving sea lion pups wash up on the California coast, and as the Canadian government shuts down research into climate change, a coalition of American federal, state and tribal government agencies has released a National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.

Around the world, many species are already suffering from the effects of climate change. The sea lion babies are likely starving because there was so much less fish in the unusually warm water this winter, making it hard for their mothers to find food. The oceans are in trouble everywhere: warming, acidifying, overfished and under-protected, and facing catastrophic collapse.

The wildlife strategy provides a unified approach-reflecting shared principles and science-based practices-for reducing the negative impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, plants, and the natural systems upon which they depend. Its key goals are to:

1 | Conserve and connect habitat
2 | Manage species and habitats
3 | Enhance management capacity
4 | Support adaptive management
5 | Increase knowledge and information
6 | Increase awareness and motivate
action
7 | Reduce non-climate stressors.

The Report reminds us how much we stand to lose if we continue to allow the destruction of habitats and ecosystems for short term profits, and that we do know what to do to allow them to rebuild. Here's an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

"Our climate is changing, and these changes are already impacting the nation's valuable natural resources and the people, communities, and economies that depend on them. The focus is on actions that can be taken, or at least initiated, over the next five to ten years in the context of the changes to our climate that are already occurring, and those that are projected by the end of the century. It is designed to be a key part of the nation's larger response to a changing climate, and to guide responsible actions by natural resource managers, conservation partners, and other decision makers at all levels. The Strategy was produced by federal, state, and tribal representatives and has been coordinated with a variety of other climate change adaptation efforts at national, state, and tribal levels.

The overarching goal of the Strategy is a simple one: to inspire, enable, and increase meaningful action that helps safeguard the nation's natural resources in a changing climate. Admittedly, the task ahead is a daunting one, especially if the world fails to make serious efforts to reduce emissions of GHGs. But we can make a difference.

To do that, we must begin now to prepare for a future unlike the recent past. The observed changes in climate have been attributed to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, which have set in motion a series of changes in the planet's climate system. Far greater changes are inevitable not only because emissions will continue, but also because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time. Even if further GHG emissions were halted today, alterations already underway in the Earth's climate will last for hundreds or thousands of years. If GHG emissions continue, as is currently more likely, the planet's average temperature is projected to rise by 2.0 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with accompanying major changes in extreme weather events, variable and/or inconsistent weather patterns, sea level rise, and changing ocean conditions including increased acidification.

Safeguarding our valuable living resources in a changing climate for current and future generations is a serious and urgent problem. Addressing the problem requires action now to understand current impacts, assess future risks, and prepare for and adapt to a changing climate.

This National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy (hereafter Strategy) is a call to action-a framework for effective steps These impacts are expected to increase with continued changes in the planet's climate system, putting many of the nation's valuable natural resources at risk. Action is needed now to reduce these impacts (including reducing the drivers of climate change) and help sustain the natural resources and services the nation depends on.

Because the development of this adaptation Strategy will only be worthwhile if it leads to meaningful action, it is directly aimed at several key groups: natural resource management agency leaders and staff (federal, state, and tribal); elected officials in both executive and legislative government branches (federal, state, local, and tribal); leaders in industries that depend on and can impact natural resources, such as agriculture, forestry, and recreation; and private landowners, whose role is crucial because they own more than 70 percent of the land in the United States. The Strategy should also be useful for decision makers in sectors that affect natural resources (such as agriculture, energy, urban development, transportation, and water resource management), for conservation partners, for educators, and for the interested public, whose input and decisions will have major impacts on safeguarding the nation's living resources in the face of climate change. The Strategy also should be useful to those in other countries dealing with these same issues and those dealing with the international dimensions of climate adaptation.

Fish, wildlife, and plants provide jobs, food, clean water, storm protection, health benefits and many other important ecosystem services that support people, communities and economies across the nation every day. the observed changes in the climate are already impacting these valuable resources and systems. These impacts are expected to increase with continued changes in the planet's climate system. Action is needed now to help safeguard these natural resources and the communities and economies that depend on them.

Measurements unequivocally show that average surface air temperatures in the United States have risen two degrees Fahrenheit (°F) over the last 50 years. The science strongly supports the finding that the underlying cause of these changes is the accumulation of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. If GHG emissions continue unabated, the planet's average temperature is projected to rise by an additional 2.0 to 11.5 °F by the end of the century, with accompanying increases in extreme weather events, variable and/or inconsistent weather patterns, sea levels and other factors with significant impacts on natural environments and the vital services they provide.

Faced with a future climate that will be unlike that of the recent past, the nation has the opportunity to act now to reduce the impacts of climate change on its valuable natural resources and resource-dependent communities and businesses. Preparing for and addressing these changes in the near term can help increase the efficiency and effectiveness of actions to reduce negative impacts and take advantage of potential benefits from a changing climate (climate adaptation). In 2009, Congress recognized the need for a national government to take effective steps towards climate change adaptation over the next five to ten years.

Federal, state, and tribal governments and conservation partners are encouraged to read the Strategy in its entirety to identify intersections between the document and their mission areas and activities.

The Strategy is guided by nine principles. These principles include collaborating across all levels of government, working with non-government entities such as private landowners and other sectors like agriculture and energy, and engaging the public. It is also important to use the best available science-and to identify where science and management capabilities must be improved or enhanced. When adaptation steps are taken, it is crucial to carefully monitor actual outcomes in order to adjust future actions to make them more effective, an iterative process called adaptive management. We must also link efforts within the U.S. with wide climate adaptation strategy for fish, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems, asking the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to develop such a strategy.

CEQ and DOI responded by assembling an unprecedented partnership of federal, state, and tribal fish and wildlife conservation agencies to draft the document. More than 90 diverse technical, scientific, and management experts from across the country participated in drafting the technical content of the document. The result is The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy (hereafter Strategy).

The Strategy is the first joint effort of three levels of government (federal, state, and tribal) that have primary authority and responsibility for the living resources of the United States to identify what must be done to help these resources become more resilient, adapt to, and survive a warming climate. It is designed to inspire and enable natural resource managers, legislators, efforts internationally to build resilience and adaptation for species that migrate and depend on areas beyond U.S. borders. Finally, given the size and urgency of the challenge, we must begin acting now.

Climate Change impacts on natural Systems

The Strategy details the current and expected future impacts of climate change on the eight major ecosystem types in the United States (Chapter 2). For example, warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are expected to cause more fires and more pest outbreaks, such as the mountain pine beetle epidemic in western forests, while some types of forests will displace what is now tundra. Grasslands and shrublands are likely to be invaded by non-native species and suffer wetland losses from drier conditions, which would decrease nesting habitat for waterfowl. Deserts are expected to get hotter and drier, accelerating existing declines in species like the Saguaro cactus.

Climate change is expected to be especially dramatic in the Arctic. Temperature increases in northern Alaska would change tussock tundra into shrublands, leading to increased fire risk. In addition, the thawing of frozen organic material in soils would release huge amounts of GHGs, contributing to climate change. In coastal and marine areas, the loss of sea ice and changing ocean conditions are threatening key species such as walrus, ice seals and polar bears as well as the lifestyles and subsistence economics of indigenous peoples.

... Climate adaptation Strategy areas (including refugia and corridors of habitat that allow species to migrate), and areas where habitat restoration can promote resiliency and adaptation of species and ecosystem functions. In addition to traditional habitat restoration and protection efforts, this Strategy envisions innovative opportunities for creating additional habitat. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) works with farmers and ranchers to cost-share conservation practices that benefit at-risk, threatened, or endangered species, such as the lesser prairie chicken. These efforts may be useful in responding to climate change as well as other existing conservation challenges. Similarly, adjusting rice farming practices in Louisiana could provide valuable new resources for a variety of waterfowl and shorebirds whose habitat is now disappearing because of wetland loss and sea level rise.

It is also possible to use applied management to make habitats and species more resistant to climate change so they continue to provide sustainable cultural, subsistence, recreational, and commercial uses. For example, managing stream corridors to preserve functional processes and reconnect channels with well-vegetated floodplains may help to ensure a steady supply of groundwater recharge that maintains coldwater species even when air temperatures rise. Floodplains serve as vital hydrologic capacitors, and may become even more important in many parts of the country as more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. Protecting and restoring stream habitats to maintain more narrow and deep stream beds and riparian shade cover can also help keep water temperatures cool in a warming climate.

Climate Change adaptation Strategies and actions

The Strategy describes steps that can be taken to address these impacts and help conserve ecosystems and make them more resilient (Chapter 3). Proposed strategies and actions along with checklists to monitor progress are organized under seven major goals in the Strategy: 1 | Conserve and connect habitat 2 | Manage species and habitats 3 | Enhance management capacity 4 | Support adaptive management 5 | Increase knowledge and information 6 | Increase awareness and motivate action 7 | Reduce non-climate stressors

Many proposed actions describe types of conservation activities that management agencies have traditionally undertaken but that will continue to be useful in a period of climate change. Other actions are designed specifically to respond to the new challenges posed by climate change. An extremely important approach for helping fish, wildlife, and plants adapt to climate change is conserving enough suitable habitat to sustain diverse and healthy populations. Many wildlife refuges and habitats could lose some of their original values, as the plants and animals they safeguard are forced to move into more hospitable climes.

As a result, there is an urgent need to identify the best candidates for new conservation Rivers, streams, and lakes face higher temperatures that harm coldwater species like salmon and trout, while sea level rise threatens coastal marshes and beaches, which are crucial habitats for many species, such as the diamondback terrapin and the piping plover. Since water can absorb CO2 from the air, the rising levels of the gas in the atmosphere and accompanying absorption into the oceans have caused ocean waters to become 30 percent more acidic since 1750. Acidification is already affecting the reproduction of organisms such as oysters. As the pH of seawater continues to drop, major impacts on aquatic ecosystems and species are expected. Loss of arctic ice means loss of valuable habitat for many marine species."

Reprinted with permission from the Environmental Law and Litigation Blog.

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