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Information iconA polar bear sow and cub at Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where melting sea ice threatens their existence. (Photo: Gregory Teller, Share the Experience, 2014 contest)

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.

 

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The 2019 Swan Lake Fire at Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. On the Kenai Peninsula, severe drought has led to surprising fire behavior: burning later into the season and into habitats that usually are fire-resistant. (Photo: Mike Hill/USFWS)

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.

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Kenai Peninsula grasslands. (Photo: USFWS)
Farther south in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, increased wildfire activity has consumed subalpine and alpine habitats that usually do not burn. Warmer and drier conditions have also brought more beetle infestation and fire disturbance to spruce forests. Forest regeneration is no longer supported in these stands. Instead, a savannah grassland is emerging, totally altering the region’s historic ecosystem.
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Key deer. (Photo: USFWS)
In Florida, National Key Deer Refuge is slowly sinking, succumbing to sea-level rise. As the island shrinks, so does habitat for threatened Key deer, which live only in the Florida Keys.  
loggerhead hatchling at blackbeard island Georgia photo by becky skiba
Loggerhead hatchling. (Photo: Becky Skiba/USFWS)
Along the South Carolina coast, the islands of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge provide important nesting habitat for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. But rising seas are eroding nesting areas so badly that staff and volunteers must often rescue and relocate turtle nests before they are washed out to sea.
American Crocodile at key biscayne photo by Judd Patterson
American crocodile. (Photo: Judd Patterson/National Park Service)
The American crocodile, native to southern Florida, also faces pressure from rising seas. Staff at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge have to add sand to historic nesting mounds to elevate them and “buy time” for these ancient reptiles.
mallards at seedskadee national wildlife refuge photo by tom koerner
Mallards. (Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS)
In the Great Plains, some bird species are shifting their range up to 360 miles northward, according to recent studies. Some species that used to winter in the South may no longer need to migrate as far to find food or shelter. This is especially true for waterfowl, which seek open water and food in winter.
whooping cranes at Aransas national wildlife refuge photo by Diane Nunley
Whooping cranes, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. (Photo: Diane Nunley)
Tropical plant species like mangroves also are moving north, as cold snaps that used to stop them become less frequent. Along the Texas coast near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, mangroves are encroaching into salt marshes that provide winter habitat for endangered whooping cranes. Land managers worry that if the expansion continues, it will shrink winter habitat for these rare birds.
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Coral, Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Ian Shive/USFWS)
When ocean water becomes too warm, sea corals expel the algae living in their tissues and turn white. Without the algae that they need to grow, corals become stressed and vulnerable to further damage. Such “coral bleaching” events tied to climate change are becoming more common in areas around Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
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Moose, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota. (Photo: USFWS)
At Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere in northern Minnesota, warmer temperatures and accompanying habitat changes are pushing cold-loving moose farther north. Growing numbers of white-tailed deer are taking over habitat previously occupied by moose. With the deer come deer ticks, which further stress the moose that remain.
pinyon pines at Black Rock Joshua Tree National Park Service photo by renata harrison
Pinion pines. (Photo: Renata Harrison/National Park Service)
More severe and prolonged drought forecast for the Southwest, exacerbated by climate change, is expected to change the makeup of pinion-juniper forests and the animals that live in them. Pinion trees depend on birds like the pinion jay to broadly distribute their seeds. When there are fewer pinions and fewer birds, as a result of drought, both suffer losses.
pika with flowers rocky mountains photo by steve torbit
Pika. (Photo: Steve Torbit/USFWS)
At Colorado’s Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge and other places in the Rockies, small mammals are climbing higher to beat the heat. Some, like the pika, a tiny rabbit-like mammal, are running out of places to move because they already live high in the mountains.  

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:

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:

 

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge photo by Douglas George
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge at sunset. (Photo: Douglas George/Share the Experience 2018 contest)

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 sediment spray photo by Evans
Building up a portion of marsh at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge with sediment from the Blackwater River. (Photo: Middleton Evans)

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.

 

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In some areas along the East Coast, sea-level rise is contributing to the spread of phragmites, an invasive wetland grass. (Photo: Tom Sturm/USFWS)

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.

 

tree removal colorrx Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge photo by Erik J Meyers at The Conservation Fund 2 color rx
Removing trees to promote marsh growth, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Erik J. Meyers/The Conservation Fund)

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.

Resist-Accept-Direct Resources

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

 

Information iconAs the Great Plains warm, mallards and other waterfowl are extending their range north. (Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS)