The rapid warming of the earth’s atmosphere poses historic challenges for the world — and for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Climate change impacts — extended droughts, massive floods, intense hurricanes and catastrophic wildfires — are occurring more often and causing more damage than at any time in recorded history. Related weather disturbances are swallowing coastlines, drying timberlands, fueling wildfires and changing soil quality.
In such conditions, how does the Refuge System fulfill its mission to conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat for the benefit of the American people? As climate change up-ends species and undermines long-existing habitats, how do we respond? By rethinking business-as-usual wildlife management practices and making hard choices.
Because the environmental changes under way are so pronounced and so widespread, fighting them all is not possible. Instead, the Refuge System is using the best-available science to help decide where to adapt, where to resist and what tools to use to do so.
Landscapes in Flux | Managing for Change | A Response Framework |
Case Study: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge |
Resist-Accept-Direct Resources | Other Agencies Addressing Climate Change
Landscapes in Flux
In the past, habitats — areas that provide the food and shelter wildlife need to survive— were relatively stable: Wildlife moved in and out, but, generally, scientists knew what conditions to expect. No more. Across the Refuge System, particularly in the far north and along the East Coast, warming-induced changes are so marked that the past is no longer predictive of the future.
Some of the most pronounced effects are being seen in Alaska, Florida and the Southeast.
At Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the wildfire season now stretches from April to September—about a month longer than in the past, thanks in part to climate change. The longer season, combined with drier conditions, is leading to more frequent and more severe wildfires.
Managing for Change
Climate change is a complex natural resource management problem because it involves persistent change across large landscapes and is difficult or impossible to address locally. Conditions fueled by or worsened by climate change may favor species new to an area over those that have been longtime inhabitants. These changes can result in ecological transformation—a thorough system makeover that can occur when species move due to changes in their surrounding environment.
Recognizing the need for coordinated action, representatives of several natural resource management agencies met in 2018 to develop a framework to address ecological transformation. The group is using this framework to develop management guidance for resource managers. Along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, participating agencies included:
- Bureau of Land Management
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- National Park Service
- U.S. Forest Service
The U.S. Geological Survey provided scientific guidance.
Members devised a Resist-Accept-Direct framework to help resource managers collaborate across landscapes and jurisdictions (federal, state, local, tribal and private).
A Response Framework
The Resist-Accept-Direct framework allows managers to choose from three management responses:
- Resist the direction of change, by working to maintain or restore function, structure or composition, based on historical or acceptable current conditions. To resist means to return a system to its historical condition.
- Accept the direction of change, by allowing the change to occur without intervening. To accept is to allow nature to change conditions without any management response.
- Direct the change, by actively shaping managing processes, function, structure or composition toward a new desired condition. To direct is to take management actions to forcefully move a system toward some condition that humans find desirable.
Case Study: Blackwater Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1933 to protect migratory birds, consists of more than 30,000 acres of rich tidal marsh, flats, mixed hardwood and loblolly pine forests, managed freshwater wetlands and croplands. The Blackwater River spans the single largest area of brackish marsh within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The refuge is recognized as a Wetland of International Importance and an Internationally Important Bird Area. Refuge wetlands also provide storm-surge protection to residents of lower Dorchester County.
Using a collaborative report—Blackwater 2100—as a basis, staff at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge use all three RAD strategies.
Blackwater Refuge: Resist
A good example of the Resist strategy can be seen at the refuge area called Shorter’s Wharf, which provides historic habitat for the eastern black rail and the salt marsh sparrow, among other bird species.
Managers know the fix is temporary —as solutions using the Resist strategy almost always are. If sea-level rise outpaces the ability of the marsh to trap sediment and grow, the project may last only a decade or two. It is important to keep in mind long-term goals when using the Resist strategy.
Blackwater Refuge: Accept
Phragmites, an invasive wetland grass that chokes out native plants and wildlife habitat, is widespread across the refuge, making it difficult to control. Sea-level rise tied to climate change has made the problem worse.
As former high grounds subside and change into tidal wetlands, higher salt levels in the soil are killing trees. The tree die-off appears to give phragmites a foothold in these areas where it wasn’t seen before. Under these circumstances, refuge staff chose to Accept the change brought on by phragmites. While the plant does not provide the type of wildlife habitat needed by many birds and animals, it does reduce erosion, trap sediment and buffer storm surges, benefiting Dorchester County residents.
Blackwater Refuge: Direct
Because fighting phragmites is so hard once it becomes established, the refuge is using the Direct strategy to try to head off the invasive grass before it reaches new sites.
At one upland site, the refuge has removed trees from an area likely to succumb to sea-level rise in the near future. This may help promote formation of marsh vegetation and help reduce phragmites encroachment. Staff hope this may be a tool to help guide upslope migration of marshes in response to sea-level rise.
National Park Service Report (pdf)
RAD Information Links (from the American Fisheries Society & the Wildlife Society)
“The Trouble with Naturalness: Rethinking Park and Wilderness Goals,” Cole and Aplet (2010)(pdf)
RAD webinar (from Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park)
The Climate Toolbox
Other Agencies Addressing Climate Change
National Park Service
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Forest Service
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Bureau of Land Management