Categorized | Climate Change

Review: Redesigning biodiversity conservation projects for climate change

This post is the first in an occasional series of reviews of peer reviewed journal articles, government and non-governmental reports, and books on climate change with applications for wildlife and ecosystem adaptation and conservation.

In their paper, “Redesigning biodiversity conservation projects for climate change: examples from the field,” authors Karen Poiani et al. make important contributions to the field of applied biodiversity climate change adaptation.  The authors describe a process The Nature Conservancy used to identify climate change impacts and to develop adaptation strategies for 20 of TNCs project areas from around the world.

In addition to the description of useable methods for other practitioners to employ to develop adaptation strategies for their projects, the two major insights of the paper are: virtually all conservation projects will need to be adjusted in light of climate change, and in the future, more thought will need to be given to “transformative” actions that look beyond the current conservation targets to facilitate future ecosystem change.

Based on their analysis of climate change impacts, the project teams developed 42 adaptation strategies. The authors classified these strategies two ways.  First, they grouped strategies based on whether they were new strategies to the project area, adjustments to existing strategies, or whether no change in existing strategies was contemplated.  It is extremely telling that of the 42 adaptation strategies developed, only two were existing, unchanged conservation strategies.  As aptly stated by the authors,

“These findings provide strong evidence that considerations of climate change motivate substantive changes in conservation strategies.  They also suggest that conservation projects that ignore climate change could be compromised because they are not appropriately tailored to their potential future situation.”

Making conservation projects and programs climate-smart needs to become standard practice.

The authors also classified the adaptation strategies developed by broad adaptation categories: resistance strategies, resilience strategies, and transformation strategies.  These types of strategies are now commonly found in the adaptation literature.  Resistance refers to strategies that seek to maintain current conservation targets by resisting or compensating for climate-induced changes.  Resilience strategies seek to enhance the ability of the ecosystem or conservation target to rebound from disturbance.  Transformative, or facilitation, strategies are those that attempt to assist systems shift to a new state, or that are designed to protect a future state.

For example, in a coastal marsh system, a resistance strategy would be laying wave barriers to reduce wave-induced erosion, resilience strategies could include restoring degraded hydrology to allow for natural marsh-building process to keep pace with sea level rise, and transformative strategies would be facilitating the inland migration of marshes through land acquisition and habitat interventions.

Of the 42 adaptation strategies developed, 22 were resistance strategies, 18 were resilience, and only 2 were transformation strategies.  As the authors point out: “the predominance of resistance strategies contrasts with the literature about climate change and biodiversity management in which resilience strategies were recommended more than twice as often as resistance strategies.  One possible explanation for this difference is the inherent tendency of conservationists to try to keep things as they are, such that resistance strategies may be preferred whenever possible.”

The paper concludes, “we hypothesize that climate adaptation in reality may require a greater preponderance of transformative strategies, and that scientists and institutions should accelerate exploring such approaches to define and develop the next generation of conservation strategies.”

Or, in the words of Star Trek’s Borg, “resistance is futile.”  Adapting to climate change is not only going to necessitate scientific and technical fixes to our conservation problems – it is going to require the conservation community to change culturally, to change what we value, and to change what our end goals are.

The paper reflects a willingness to do so.  Altering what your goals are is hard, especially when you have been working for years to achieve them.  Yet 60% of the projects did make adjustments to their conservation targets, or their end goals in response to climate change.

An example I often raise to demonstrate the need to adjust conservation goals in response to climate change is the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge.  Silvio Conte is a unique refuge charged with facilitating the restoration of the entire Connecticut River watershed, not only through land acquisition, but also by being a catalytic force for conservation by other partners.  One of its establishing purposes is the restoration of Atlantic salmon, which was extirpated from the river in the 1800s.  Connecticut is the southern end of Atlantic Salmon’s historic range.  Existing runs of salmon in Maine are arriving two weeks earlier than they did historically due to climate change.  Climate models suggest that Maine may have trouble holding on to habitat conditions for viable populations of salmon in the future.  In other words, the conditions in the Connecticut River will very likely not support salmon in the future.  The refuge should evaluate changing this conservation target.

Evaluating conservation goals is the first step in preparing for climate change and practicing climate-smart conservation.

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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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.