Categorized | Climate Change

Building a National Program to Help Save Wildlife from Climate Change

Climate change affects species and ecosystems at large scales.  It will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for wildlife and land managers to conserve natural resources within the boundaries of any particular land unit alone.  Coordinated, collaborative landscape-scale science and conservation is our best chance of safeguarding wildlife and ecosystems from the impacts of climate change.

For the past few years Defenders has been pressing policy makers to develop a national wildlife climate adaptation strategy that will begin addressing these challenges.  We, along with our coalition partners, have been successful in educating policy makers about the importance of this issue and all comprehensive climate change bills in the last two years included a natural resources adaptation title that provided direction for the government to develop a national wildlife, habitat and ecosystem climate adaptation strategy.  Unfortunately, comprehensive climate legislation was not adopted in the last Congress and no one expects it to be resurrected by the recently-convened Congress.

In federal appropriations bills enacted in 2009 and 2010, however, Congress directed the Department of the Interior and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to develop a national wildlife adaptation strategy.  The report accompanying the 2010 bill stated:

“The conferees note the previous direction provided within the fiscal year 2009 appropriations act directing the Secretary of the Interior to develop a national strategy to assist fish, wildlife, plants, and associated ecological processes in becoming more resilient, adapting to, and surviving the impacts of climate change. This conference agreement provides ample funds to accomplish substantial scientific and management activities, but this needs to be done within the context of an integrated approach among the various Federal departments, States, Tribes and other institutions. The conferees urge the Council on Environmental Quality, working closely with the Department of the Interior as the lead department, to develop a national, government-wide strategy to address climate impacts on fish, wildlife, plants, and associated ecological processes. It should provide that there is integration, coordination, and public accountability to ensure efficiency and avoid duplication. The conferees expect to receive a timeline and a blueprint for the completion of such a national strategic planning effort, as well as regular updates as progress is made.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) within the Department of the Interior, CEQ, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are now co-chairing an effort to get this strategy off the ground.  The FWS led an informal process over the last year to begin building support from a national strategy and soliciting feedback from the conservation professional and scientific communities.  But now the real work of developing the plan is underway.  There is a national Steering Committee comprised of over 20 federal, state, and tribal representatives leading the development of the plan.  Although a final national strategy is scheduled to be published by summer 2012, we are encouraging the Steering Committee to accelerate the timeline by 6 months to issue a final strategy by the winter of 2011-2012.

To assist the Steering Committee as it develops the national strategy, Defenders and our conservation partners* recently provided the following input:

The Goal

According to the Congressional direction provided in the FY 2010 federal appropriations bill mandating the development of the National Strategy, the goal is to “to assist fish, wildlife, and plants and associated ecological processes in becoming more resilient, adapting to, and surviving the impacts of climate change.”  The National Strategy should focus on two related, but distinct, sub-goals:

  • Providing guidance to natural resources agencies and conservation partners to achieve the above goal and advancing the field of wildlife and ecosystem adaptation;
  • Highlighting the benefits of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation and providing guidance to non-natural resources-related agencies and partners to implementing ecosystem-based approaches.

These two sub-goals are vital to the success of the National Strategy.  We need to build the capacity of all conservation partners involved in direct conservation actions.  At the same time we need to harness the efforts of other sectors to assist in ecosystem adaptation to achieve landscape-scale success.

The Niche

When Congress first provided direction to the federal agencies to begin developing the National Strategy in the FY 2009 federal appropriations bill, there was little natural resources climate change adaptation policy development underway.  Today, there are myriad policies, programs, and activities underway in various federal, state, and local agencies as well as NGOs, universities, and the business sector.

The National Strategy should complement, add value, fill gaps, and assist in integrating and coordinating between these and other initiatives.  Two key aspects the National Strategy fills is its focus on biodiversity and its commitment to providing direction to all conservation partners.

The Problem

Climate change is placing tremendous strain on our already stressed fish, wildlife, plants and ecosystems.  We have already seen the massive shrinking of Arctic sea ice, record drought conditions in the southwest, vast forest die-offs from warming-induced beetle infestations, and documented shifts in species phenology and ranges.  This has all occurred under only 1°C of average global warming.  We are fast approaching 2, 3, and even 4°C of global warming by the end of this century.  It is difficult to imagine what the world is going to look like in this context.

But the impacts of climate change themselves are not the problem.  The problems or barriers to alleviating the impacts are largely institutional, social, and political.  The main problems and barriers we have identified in achieving biodiversity conservation in the face of climate change include:

  • Lack of a priority/no shared priorities.  Ecosystem adaptation is not currently a high priority for most natural resources related agencies, and is not even considered by non-natural resources related agencies.
  • Lack of climate change literacy among agency staff, decision and policy makers, stakeholders and constituents.
  • Lack of coordination and collaboration at landscape scales, across jurisdictions.
  • Lack of concrete on-the-ground adaptation actions making it difficult for agency staff and partners to conceptualize solutions.
  • Lack of institutional mechanisms to address uncertainty in decision making.

The National Strategy does not have to attempt to solve all of these problems.  Other adaptation-related initiatives underway may be adequate to address some of these barriers. The National Strategy should, however, explicitly identify the problems it is trying to solve.  The Steering Committee should ask itself, “Why do we need a National Strategy?”

The National Strategy

Using the above goals, policy context and problem definitions, the following components and principles should be included in the National Strategy:

  • The National Strategy should be designed in phases.  The National Strategy being developed today is phase one.  It does not have to conserve wildlife for the next 100 years.  Rather it should set the goals and focus on actions to build institutional adaptive capacity over the next five years.  The National Strategy should explicitly include a process and time table for revision as we learn more about the impacts of climate change and adaptation strategies.  In addition, the National Strategy should include measures to foster implementation, such as such as annual progress reports.
  • The National Strategy should make it clear that wildlife and ecosystem adaptation is a priority for all agencies and partners, including agencies that are not traditionally classified as land and resource management agencies but that routinely impact wildlife and natural resources, such as the Department of Transportation and Department of Defense.
  • The National Strategy should define and provide objective criteria for determining what constitutes wildlife and ecosystem adaptation.  The National Strategy should also define and provide guidelines to those seeking to implement ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation.
  • The National Strategy should foster coordination and collaboration across jurisdictions.  Coordination and collaboration cannot be simply rhetoric in the Strategy.  The National Strategy should identify specific institutional mechanisms to ensure coordination and collaboration is successful, is prioritized, and is rewarded.  Coordination and collaboration are particularly important for science and restoring ecological connectivity to facilitate species movements in response to climate change.
  • The National Strategy should establish a process to address high-priority climate impacts.  For example, the National Strategy may commit to establishing blue ribbon science and management teams focused on providing guidance to managing coastal marshes under sea level rise, addressing drought in southwestern aquatic ecosystems, managing forest change, and managing the drying of lakes and ponds in Alaska due to permafrost melting.
  • The National Strategy should identify the baseline of science that partners should share.   The National Strategy should include guidance to provide consistent approaches and sources of information on climate change science and impacts.  For example, agencies that have missions relying on our coasts should be using consistent information about the projected threats of sea level rise.  This could be achieved by relying on products and services provided by the USGCRP.
  • The National Strategy should clearly outline how it will be implemented.  This should include specific commitments, performance measures, timelines, and reporting functions.

We think that by adopting the above recommendations, the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy will provide a framework for common action to assist our wildlife, habitats, and ecosystems cope with the impacts of climate change.

* Our conservation partners include Earthjustice, National Parks and Conservation Association, National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, The Trust for Public Land, and The Wilderness Society.

This post was written by:

- who has written 16 posts on dotWild.

Noah Matson is Defenders’ Vice President Landscape Conservation and Climate Adaptation. Noah directs Defenders’ efforts to create and implement policies and strategies to safeguard wildlife and habitat from the impacts of climate change. Noah also oversees Defenders’ programs to improve the management of wildlife and habitat on federal public lands including national forests, national wildlife refuges, and the National System of Public Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

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One Response to “Building a National Program to Help Save Wildlife from Climate Change”


  1. […] promise for achieving this goal, creating the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and crafting a National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. It isn’t everything we need, but it’s a […]

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.