Service Wildlife Biologist Dorie Stolley recently completed a yearlong partnership with the Manomet Center where she developed the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Shorebird Habitat. Credit: USFWS
Service Wildlife Biologist Dorie Stolley recently completed a yearlong partnership with the Manomet Center where she developed the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Shorebird Habitat. Credit: USFWS

Biological Toolbox for Climate Change

Planning for the effects of climate change presents a unique challenge to the Service. Ecosystems exist in a delicate balance among ecological processes, wildlife and habitats – all of which have distinct contributions to their overall health, well-being and survival. Climate change threatens to upset this balance.

On national wildlife refuges throughout the Northeast Region, climate change is a call to arms. In collaboration with federal and state partners as well as non-governmental conservation organizations, the Service is developing and implementing tools to predict the effects of climate change and inform future management plans.

Service Wildlife Biologist Dorie Stolley recently completed a yearlong partnership with the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, during which Stolley designed and tested a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Shorebird Habitat (video - wmv - about 25 minutes). The Microsoft Excel-based assessment, created in collaboration with the Manomet Center and national wildlife refuge managers and biologists, is designed for refuge managers to measure the vulnerability of their sites to climate change and consider what options are available to best maintain shorebird habitat.

The assessment is currently underway at three pilot sites in the Northeast Region, all of which are important shorebird habitats recognized by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN): Monomoy, Chincoteague  and E.B. Forsythe national wildlife refuges.

“Using the assessment, participants identify and score the vulnerability of habitat types to climate change, the effects of traditional stressors and the value of the habitats. This informs the creation and prioritization of strategies to adapt to climate change, including increasing resilience of habitats and species, mitigating effects, relocating impoundments, and changing conservation targets, just to name a few,” said Stolley. “Then we can provide a transparent and logical basis for management decisions.”

Vulnerability of coastal shorebird habitats to climate change is assessed in three categories: effects of sea level rise; effects of other climate change variables like predicted temperature and precipitation changes; and the effects of increased frequency and intensity of storms. Once the vulnerability of habitats to climate change is measured, the assessment outlines explicit strategies and adaptation options, and evaluates each option’s chances for success.

Service LMRD Coastal Biologist Dr. Susan C. Adamowicz in the field. Credit: USFWS
Service LMRD Coastal Biologist Dr. Susan C. Adamowicz in the field.

Including on-site workshops and web conferences, the three pilot assessments were completed with the input of federal, state, non-profit, and academic partners as well as local refuge volunteer groups.

“One of our goals is to engage partners and pave the way for future collaborations,” said Stolley. “It’s collaborative conservation – you get everybody in the same room and recognize the value of their input.”

Stolley’s assessment is just one of many tools in the Service’s climate change toolbox.

In March of this year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Land Management Research Demonstration (LMRD) Coastal Biologist Dr. Susan C. Adamowicz and University of New Hampshire Professor Dr. David Burdick conducted a workshop at E.B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge entitled, “Salt Marsh Management – Restoration Adapts to Global Climate Change.” (pdf)

Attended by refuge biologists and managers as well as federal, state and local partners, the workshop combines classroom-based lectures and discussions with salt marsh field work. The workshop has previously been held at the Eagle Hill Foundation in Maine, but was conducted at a national wildlife refuge for the first time this year.

“Our goal is to get people comfortable dealing with conceptual models and talking about processes,” said Adamowicz. “If we don’t understand the processes, we’ll never save the species.”

Classroom material focused on current and future habitat stressors and predicted changes to salt marsh ecosystems as sea level rises and the climate warms. Out in the field, Burdick and Adamowicz demonstrated new restoration tools and techniques in the face of a changing climate.

Adamowicz said the workshop’s take-home message is to avoid thinking of climate change as a doomsday scenario.

Kevin Holcomb, Wildlife Biologist at E.B. Forsythe NWR, conducts salt marsh field work. Credit: USFWS
Kevin Holcomb, Wildlife Biologist at E.B. Forsythe NWR, conducts salt marsh field work. Credit: USFWS

“All is not lost. The defeatist attitude often surrounding accelerated sealevel rise is not productive,” said Adamowicz. “It is true that climate change is a complicated issue – as serious as any environmental endeavor we’ve ever tackled. But with our partners, the Service has a tremendous amount of expertise. Together, we can create a coherent response.”

Kevin Holcomb, wildlife biologist at the E.B. Forsythe refuge believes Stolley's and Adamowicz's workshops serve dual purposes.

“While the workshops help to inform future management decisions, they also provide a forum and opportunity to initiate a great dialogue with our federal, state and local partners,” said Holcomb. “We’re lucky to have such great relationships and it’s already paying dividends.”

The workshops have helped the refuge determine those habitats that may be flooded due to sea level rise and where habitats may migrate to in the future. All of the information will be integrated into the refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) and will be used as the basis for future salt marsh restoration projects.

“If we provide areas where marshes can migrate, we hope to see only a minimal change in shorebird populations,” said Holcomb. “Many organizations depend on the Service to protect wildlife. With these workshops, we’re strengthening our cause.”

Story by: Bill Butcher, NewVo Media

Flickr.com icon Check out our Flickr photo album of the climate change workshops at E.B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

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