Calling global climate change “the transformational conservation challenge of our time,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a new climate change strategic plan on Monday, which represents a significant shift in the agency’s approach to protecting species. The plan puts a heavy emphasis on the need for the federal government to work closely with state and local agencies, academia, and private groups as climate change alters the suitable habitat for many species across the country.
As the plan notes, climate change is already shifting habitat and threatening species large and small, from polar bears to alpine plants.
“In the history of wildlife conservation, the Service and the larger conservation community have never experienced a challenge that is so ubiquitous across the landscape. Our existing conservation infrastructure will be pressed to its limits — quite likely beyond its limits — to respond successfully,” the plan states.
The agency, which is part of the Interior Department, announced several concrete measures to respond to climate change, including placing a high priority on helping species adapt to changing temperatures and precipitation patterns, and to sea level rise. The FWS plans to establish a network of regional hubs for scientific research and information sharing, to be known as “Landscape Conservation Cooperatives,” which will serve as a scientific research and information sharing arm of FWS and its partners. The scientific data produced from these cooperatives would be incorporated into FWS’ plans to help species adapt to the effects of climate change.
Map of new Landscape Conservation Cooperatives the Fish & Wildlife Service is establishing. Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
I asked Nicole Heller, a biologist and colleague of mine at Climate Central, to comment on why climate change threatens to undermine traditional species conservation efforts. Here is what she told me:
“Climate change is a total game changer in the conservation of native plants and animals. Conservation has traditionally relied on the idea that if we just set the land aside, then animals and plants will be safe. But climate change is like pulling the rug out from under those species. The set of conditions in which they are most adapted are changing rapidly, and this means they better evolve quickly or migrate – both of which are very difficult in today’s landscape, which is already highly fragmented and disturbed.”
“That is why climate change is such a big deal to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. If society can’t mitigate climate change so that its not so fast or so great as to overwhelm our ability to keep up and adapt, then they are essentially going to fail at their mission. Protected species are going to go extinct.”
In outlining its goals, FWS has charted a strikingly different course than the one it followed during the George W. Bush administration, when climate change was kept on the back burner and largely omitted from species management plans. As Tom Strickland, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, stated on a conference call with reporters Monday, “It wasn’t long ago that you couldn’t really discuss the issue or the challenge within the corridors of the Department.” Climate change is now clearly front and center in conservation planning, but major challenges lie ahead.
One such challenge concerns climate scientists’ ability to provide relevant, accurate information on potential climate impacts at the local scale, such as an individual National Wildlife Refuge. These efforts may make use of climate projections from global climate models that are adapted for use at smaller scales, through a technique known as downscaling. Although downscaling methods are improving, they are still not as reliable as climate projections for larger geographic regions.
“We need to build new capacities in science and technology that will allow us to be more predictive,” said FWS Deputy Director Dan Ashe.
Acknowledging the drawbacks of climate projections, the strategic plan states: “We need to plan for conservation on landscape scales and be prepared to act quickly, sometimes without the scientific certainty we would prefer.”
Heller seems optimistic that improvements in simulating climate conditions at the regional to local level will pay off for species conservation and other purposes. “While it’s true that uncertainty exists about how climate change will play out at local scales relevant to species management,” she said, “since the government has starting rallying for this information, the research to bridge this gap is progressing very rapidly. It’s only a matter of time now before the information at the right scale is available to inform planning.”
Another hurdle that FWS and its partners face is figuring out how to strike a balance between addressing traditional stressors on species, such as urbanization, with the growing need to tackle the effects of climate change. “We can no longer afford to simply work to reduce non-climate stressors on an ad hoc or opportunistic basis,” the plan states, calling for “targeted” efforts to reduce stressors that data shows will hamper species conservation or recovery.
The strategy also contains goals to reduce FWS’ own contribution to climate change, with the ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality as an agency by 2020.
The Interior Department’s new focus on climate change could come under closer scrutiny if Republicans take over one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, considering that many Republican candidates are skeptical about the cause of climate change and its severity. Strickland said the Interior Department, including FWS, has so far received bipartisan support from Congress to incorporate climate change into conservation planning, noting that the Department’s regional climate centers have received “substantial funding.”
“We believe these issues cross political lines and are certainly hopeful that if there is a change in the majority we will still have support,” he said.