Open Spaces : plants

New York: Invasive Insect Infestations Spread Further North, Threatening Hemlock Forests

A bug in a wooly nest with larvae

A hemlock woolly adelgid infestation can destroy a hemlock tree in just a few years. The insect gets its name from the fuzzy, white masses that the females produce. Photo: Michael Montgomery, USDA Forest Service.

In New York, climate change may make it easier for an invasive species to continue its spread to hemlock forests further to the north.

The threat comes from the hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect that feeds on hemlock trees. The species gets its name from the fuzzy, white masses that the females produce. The adelgid uses its long mouth to extract nutrients from hemlock needles. This disrupts the flow of nutrients in the tree. Needles dry out, turn color, and drop off. Larger limbs start dying off within a couple of years. Trees become badly damaged and in many cases die after several years.

Hemlock forests provide unique habitat for wildlife. Their shade helps keep soil and water temperatures cool and provide microclimates in which many plants and animals thrive.

The hemlock woolly adelgid was first discovered in the United States in Virginia in the 1950s. It is native to Asia and was likely introduced to the U.S. by accident.  It has thrived along the east coast and has damaged hemlock forests from Maine to Georgia.

In New York State, the hemlock woolly adelgid was discovered in the 1980s. Infestations are now found in 25 counties. The infestations are clustered in two regions: the Hudson Valley, which includes most of the lower portion of the state, and the Finger Lakes. There is great concern over the possibility of the insects eventually spreading to the forests of upstate New York, including Adirondack Park.

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Kansas: Climate-Savvy Restoration Project Makes Wildlife Feel At Home

An open grove with blue sky and very green grass
Go Zero groves, like this one on Marais Des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas, trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They will also help control flooding and enhance water quality along the Marais des Cygnes River. Photo: Jane LeMunyon Photography.

In the state popularized by “The Wizard of Oz,” conservation partners aren’t just dreaming about a better world over the rainbow. They’re joining forces to fight climate change and provide a home for wildlife – now and into the future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Conservation Fund (TCF) have teamed up to restore 775 acres of native forestland along the Marais des Cygnes River located on the border of Kansas and Missouri.  

The effort is part of The Conservation Fund’s Go Zero program, which helps address climate change by providing ways for individuals, organizations, and even entire communities to reduce their carbon footprint, and then offset emissions by planting trees.

Tim Menard, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who splits his time between Kansas’ Flint Hills and Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuges, says the trees not only will trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they will also help control flooding and enhance water quality along the Marais des Cygnes River.

It’s also a win for wildlife.

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Georgia: Restoring a ‘Wonder Tree’ in a Changing Climate

Longleaf pine on fire

Longleaf pine forests need fire. Fires remove competing woody vegetation and release nutrients, allowing the rich diversity of plant and animal species found in longleaf ecosystems to thrive.  As temperatures rise in a changing climate, wildfires are expected to increase, making the longleaf pine a good bet for the future. Photo: John Maxwell for USFWS. Download.

Photo iconPhotos: Accompanying photoset on Flickr

Mutlimedia iconPodcast: Accompanying podcast on our Endangered Species site

Federal biologist Laurie Fenwood has a special name for her favorite tree, the longleaf pine. She calls it the wonder tree.

“Because it’s good for everything,” said Fenwood, who is leading America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Whatever the question, in the Southeast the answer is longleaf pine.”

Which southern pine tree species is most resistant to beetle infestation? Longleaf.

Which southern pine thrives during wet or dry periods? Longleaf.

Withstands hurricane-force winds? Tolerates fire? Is best for wildlife? Longleaf, longleaf and longleaf.

All of which has led Fenwood and others to a final question and answer: Which southern pine is likely the best suited to a changing climate? Longleaf, of course.

Before the European migration to North America, the longleaf pine forest stretched across more than 90 million acres from southern Virginia to Florida, and as far west as Texas. The tree dominated more than half of Georgia, filling the coastal plain from what is now Fort Benning in West Georgia to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in the southeast part of the state.

Longleaf reigned because it can grow in a broad range of habitats, from dry mountain slopes to sandy, swampy soils. It evolved with the southern pine beetle and frequent fire. Its large taproot provides a firm anchor, helping the tree withstand strong winds. In many aspects, longleaf wins over loblolly and slash pines, although many tree farmers prefer those yellow pines for their faster early growth and easier regeneration.

Today only pockets of the vast longleaf pine forest are left, totaling less than 4 percent of its historic range due to land clearing for development and agriculture, fire suppression, and the conversion of tree farms to short-rotation pines.

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Arizona: As Vegetation Moves to Higher Elevations, What Happens to the Pollinators?

Bee on a yellow flower
Bee on flower. Credit: USFWS.

Bees do it.  Flies do it.  Pollinate, that is. 

But what happens when the piñon and Ponderosa pines and aspens of northern Arizona -- vegetation pollinators call home -- move up the mountain as precipitation patterns change due to climate change? 

Some pollinators rely on specific plants.  But can they use a broader spectrum of plants?  Can they live at higher elevations to get to the plants they need? And what if they can’t?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arizona Ecological Services Field Office is addressing those research questions as it works at five sites with the Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research Center at Northern Arizona University to compile the first-ever baseline about the diversity and behavior of pollinating insects at varied elevations in northern Arizona. 

Pine trees and mountains

Changes in the precipitation patterns in northern Arizona are affecting Ponderosa pine in the highest elevations of the San Francisco Peaks. Photo by Ron Hemberger/USFWS

Pollinators are critical to maintaining diverse, healthy ecosystems. The Service is entrusted to protect at-risk pollinators, such as hummingbirds and pollinators on national wildlife refuges – and threatened or endangered species that rely on animal pollination.  More than 75 percent of flowering plants, which provide fruits, seeds nuts, and nectar for wildlife, depend on pollinators.  Recent studies indicate some pollinators are already being impacted by climate change.

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Massachusetts: Changes at Walden Pond

A meadow with yellow flowers

Adaptation iconLocation: Concord, Massachusetts
Size: over 3,800 acres
Open to the public: Yes 
Related Websites:
U.S.A. National Phenology Network

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
USA National Phenology Network           
Project BudBurst
Climate Change Threat: Warming temperatures, invasive species
Contacts: Terri Edwards, USFWS Public Affairs, (413) 253-8324 

Photo at left: A field of native flowers, Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. Credit: USFWS.

Massachusetts: Changes at Walden Pond

by Frank Wolff

“It is astonishing how soon and unexpectedly flowers appear, when the fields are scarcely tinged with green. Yesterday, for instance, you observed only the radical leaves of some plants; to-day you pluck a flower.”  -- Henry David Thoreau

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located in Concord, Massachusetts. The area was home to a dedicated naturalist in the mid-1800s. He built himself a house on 14 acres of woods on the bank of Walden Pond. He dutifully and diligently recorded the flowering times of hundreds of plants as well as the behavior of rabbits, red squirrels, mice, birds and other animals for six years.

A photo of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Credit: Photo courtesy of The Thoreau Society Collection at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods

His name was Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau provided an extensive array of data that has proven invaluable as a baseline for phenological research that continues today. Phenology is the study of events in nature that are influenced by climate and seasonal change.

A study conducted by Abraham J. Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack found that climate change is causing many plants to flower much earlier today than they did in the past. The two researchers used Thoreau’s observations, as well as the work of Alfred Hosmer, another naturalist who studied the ecosystem around Concord, as a comparison to their own modern-day observations. Their research concludes that in Concord, plants are now flowering seven days earlier on average than they did in Thoreau’s time.

But not all plants are equally impacted by climate changes. Some species have the ability to track seasonal temperature change and will flower earlier when temperatures are warmer. Other species don’t track temperatures as well, and will continue to flower at the same time every year—regardless of temperature variations. The ones that don’t track temperatures as well are more likely to suffer a decline in numbers; they also tend to be related to one another, so entire plant families are impacted.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012