Climate Change
Southeast Region

The Climate Change Challenge for Fish and Wildlife Conservation

Credit: USFWS

Credit: USFWS

The potential for rapid and lasting climate warming poses a significant challenge for fish and wildlife conservation. Species’ abundance and distribution are dynamic, relative to a variety of factors, including climate. As climate changes, the abundance and distribution of wildlife and fish will also change.

Climate warming will be a particular challenge for endangered, threatened and other “at risk” species. For example, the decline in Arctic sea ice is one of the greatest concerns for polar bears. Scientists have documented a dramatic decrease in sea ice coverage, and that ice is forming later in the fall and breaking up earlier in spring. Most climate models predict sea ice conditions will continue to degrade through this century, and some show little or no summer ice cover as early as mid-century others show it could be as long as 100 years. The Service is seeking information through scientific review by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to determine which model is the most accurate.

The Service manages America’s National Wildlife Refuge System and changing climate will force change in the stewardship of these lands. Some challenges posed by a changing climate might include:

  • Changing fire regimes;
  • Changing patterns of rain and snowfall;
  • Changing access to water resources;
  • Altered hydrology in rivers and wetlands;
  • Increased frequency of extreme weather events;
  • Rising sea levels at our 68 coastal refuges.

Changing abundance and distribution of fish, wildlife, and plant species. Service managers already are seeing evidence of some of these effects in Alaska where observed warming has been 2-4 times that of global averages and change has been more rapid and visible.

Though other Service Regions likely will not be confronted with climate change impacts on the same scale or pace as Alaska, climactic changes in the lower 48 will amplify current management challenges involving habitat fragmentation, urbanization, invasive species, disease, parasites, and water management. Highly specialized or endemic species are likely to be most susceptible to the additional stresses of changing climate.

The Refuge System is considering climate change in future Comprehensive Conservation Plans, which provide a framework for guiding refuge management decisions. The system is also looking at how projected sea level rise could affect selected coastal refuges and how wildfire could change as the result of a warming climate. This is particularly important since 68 refuges are on the coast.

The Service is currently planning a series of regional forums to help collect information on the potential effects of climate change in coastal areas, mountains, prairies and other landscapes, and to identify ways we might better prepare for managing our valuable natural resources in the coming decades.

Last updated: September 24, 2010