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Sunset at Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. Photo by Molly Martin, USFWS.

Wildlife, Habitats and Our Changing Climate

In the southeastern United States, changes to the climate are having profound impacts on our nation’s wildlife and habitats. In aquatic environments, evidence is growing that higher water temperatures resulting from climate change are negatively impacting cold- and cool-water fish populations across the country. Warmer winters are changing some birds’ migratory patterns. Sooty terns, which nest in the Dry Tortugas off Key West, Florida, are showing up earlier and earlier. Roseate spoonbills, which generally stay in Florida, the Gulf Coast and points south, are now regularly spotted in South Carolina. Record warm seawater is linked to coral reef bleaching in the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico.

There are 67 southeastern national wildlife refuges from Louisiana to North Carolina situated along coasts. Rising sea levels are expected to flood as much as 30% of the habitat on our coastal national wildlife refuges, potentially displacing protected wildlife. Some places most vulnerable places to sea level rise are found in the Mississippi Delta, the Florida Keys, the Everglades, and the North Carolina coast.

Video: There’s nothing level about sea level

How we’re responding

After two years in development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized the Climate Change Strategy in September 2010. It is a call to action, impossible to ignore: We must respond to rising global temperatures to continue fulfilling our mission.

Our Strategic Plan establishes specific goals and objectives to accomplish priority commitments as integral and essential elements of broader strategies designed to address climate change. Our strategies focus on three key elements:

  • Adaptation: Helping to reduce the impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats;
  • Mitigation: Reducing levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere;
  • Engagement: Reaching out to Service employees; local, national and international partners in the public and private sectors; key constituencies and stakeholders; and the broader citizenry of this country to join forces and seek solutions to the challenges to fish and wildlife conservation posed by climate change.

For more information on our nationwide approach to climate change, visit our Conservation in a Changing Climate homepage.

Landscape level changes require landscape level partnerships

Underwater photograph of an unhealthy reef
A bleached colony of soft coral in a reef off the coast of Florida. Photo by Kelsey Roberts, USGS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot face the climate challenge alone. Neither can a state, a nonprofit organization or a university system. Climate change demands more of us all, working together.

The nationwide network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives are the centerpiece of our response. These are self-directed partnerships of conservation groups that share an ecosystem. Whether working on behalf of a land trust or a state wildlife agency, for causes from clean and abundant water to better hunting and fishing opportunities, we are harnessing the nation’s best tools to address each one, leading us into a new era for conservation. Together we will learn how changes in the climate impact fish, wildlife and their habitats, and how we can reduce those impacts.

Learn more about conservation across large landscapes in the southeast, or discover our national Landscape Conservation Cooperative Network.

Carbon sequestration for wildlife

A forester kneeling in a field investigating vegetation
Forester Chris Foster helps oversee a tree planting designed to sequester carbon at Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Photo: Sean Gardner.

Carbon dioxide is one of many gases emitted into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change. Terrestrial carbon sequestration is a natural process in which plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store, or sequester, it in woody vegetation for decades or more. This process helps to reduce the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering with dozens of private corporations and government and non-government organizations, to increase the benefits of carbon sequestration by restoring and enhancing native forest and wildlife habitat on national wildlife refuges and other lands in the southeast. More than 65,000 acres of federal and privately owned lands have been restored in the region since 1992, benefiting wildlife and sequestering carbon for future carbon credits.

Our efforts to sequester greenhouse gases have multiple benefits, such as:

  • National wildlife refuges offer established forests and land for reforestation to help trap greenhouse gases;
  • Native reforestation of open land creates new habitat for many species we are striving to conserve;
  • Cooperative projects create new funding sources for vital projects, particularly during times of constrained budgets;
  • Past damages to the ecosystem can be reversed by utilizing science and wildlife conservation principles.

This approach also ensures that carbon sequestration projects truly benefit our native wildlife populations - an important goal of both the Service and the conservation community!

Our earth, its land and its oceans, are more than just a storage container for greenhouse gases. The Service’s partnerships with industry and conservation organizations will result in terrestrial carbon sequestration projects that conserve, restore, and maintain the ecological integrity of our nation’s land, water, and native habitats for fish and wildlife.

Download our carbon sequestration fact sheet.

Additional resources

A close-up shot of an Eastern brook trout in front of large, rocky substrate.
The eastern brook trout is one of the coolwater fish species negatively affected by climate change. Photo by USFWS.

Conservation in a Changing Climate

At the dawn of the 21st century, the Service faces what portends to be the greatest challenge to fish and wildlife conservation in its history: The earth’s climate is changing at an accelerating rate that has the potential to cause abrupt changes in ecosystems and contribute to widespread species extinctions. As the nation’s principal federal conservation agency, the Service is dedicated to helping reduce the impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. Our 8,000 employees specialize in wildlife management and ecosystem dynamics, and have an extensive network of partners who work alongside us to ensure the sustainability of our nation’s fish and wildlife resources.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The IPCC is the international body for assessing the science related to climate change. It was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and United Nations Environment Programme to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation. IPCC assessments provide a scientific basis for governments at all levels to develop climate-related policies, and they underlie negotiations at the UN Climate Conference – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The assessments are policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive: they may present projections of future climate change based on different scenarios and the risks that climate change poses and discuss the implications of response options, but they do not tell policymakers what actions to take.

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