Open Spaces : Gulf of Mexico

Alabama: Small Changes Can Spell Big Trouble for Vulnerable Species

A diamondback terrapin sits in grass

Diamondback terrapins were once abundant on Dauphin Island, Alabama.  Now, they need state protection in order to survive. Photo: Ryan Hagerty, USFWS. Download.

In Alabama, folks embrace their natural resources.  From the sea turtles and manatees of the Gulf Coast, to the darters and mussels of northern Alabama streams, the state has some of the most diverse wildlife in the nation. This incredible variety of species includes many that are rare, and some that are imperiled.

More than 113 of Alabama’s species are now listed as threatened or endangered, including some 61 freshwater mussels, 10 reptiles, and 21 plants. With so many imperiled species in their care, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists take climate change seriously.  That’s because slight changes in climate can affect the survival of a species.

“Small environmental changes can have big effects in a relatively short period of time, particularly when you are considering such powerful ecosystem drivers as temperature and moisture,” explained Dan Everson, Deputy Field Supervisor for the Service’s Alabama Field Office.  “Many of the plant communities we have come to know and love on the Gulf coast are responsive to relatively subtle changes in moisture.  Because of the flatness of the coastal plain, a few extra inches of ground water, a few extra floods, a slight change in elevation of the tides, or even a few extra inches of rain per year may determine whether our children will continue to admire a slash pine woodland with an understory of pitcher plants and toothache grass, or find themselves instead tripping over cypress knees and palmetto crowns in a tupelo swamp.”

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Texas: In Face of Climate Change, Coast Is Not Clear for Whooping Cranes

Two whooping cranes seem to be dancing across water as they take flight

A pair of whooping cranes skim over tidal marsh habitat at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo is for USFWS use only.

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Even though a record-breaking 281 whooping cranes wintered this past season at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas, climate change is a major concern for the charismatic endangered species.

The primary threat to the cranes’ survival, according to Aransas Refuge manager Dan Alonso, is rapidly disappearing coastal habitat. Most of the habitat is being devoured by burgeoning real estate development along the Gulf of Mexico, but climate change is exacerbating the problem. A secondary concern related to climate change is the prospect of prolonged drought, which would reduce the flow of freshwater and leave marsh habitat unacceptably saline for cranes.

The Aransas Refuge population – the only natural flock of whooping cranes in North America – nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada in spring and summer. From early fall to December, the cranes migrate in small groups to the Texas refuge. In early spring, they rush 2,500 miles back up to Canada in 15-16 days.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012