The Refuge System is losing ground. Literally. There are over 160 coastal national wildlife refuges, and virtually all of them are experiencing the impacts of sea level rise and coastal storms exacerbated by climate change. Refuges need a system-wide response.
Defenders recently published a new report, National Wildlife Refuges and Sea-Level Rise: Lessons from the Frontlines, based on insights from a national perspective as well as on the ground at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The report includes recommendations for national policy, on the ground habitat management, and for dealing with local communities, many of which are resistant to the management changes necessary to cope with the rising seas. These recommendations include:
To respond to it effectively, refuge managers must:
• Take a landscape-scale approach to conservation throughout the refuge system.
• Share information throughout the refuge system to avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’ in responding to climate change.
• Receive policy guidance and support from FWS for coordinated climate change responses throughout the refuge system.
With sufficient financial support and manpower, coastal refuges can take steps to help mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise and buy time for species and habitats to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Steps that show promise include:
• Plant salt-tolerant species to minimize the impacts of saltwater intrusion.
• Restore altered hydrology to reduce salt-water intrusion and to regain natural marsh-building processes.
• Restore shoreline reefs to minimize climate-change-mediated coastal erosion.
• Work with partners and the public to develop long-term conservation plans for the next century and beyond.
A large and growing percentage of the American public is skeptical or confused about climate change. To build understanding and support for climate-change-related work at refuges, managers and staff must engage and convince the people who live near refuges. To do this, refuge managers need support and guidance from FWS to:
• Find and present tangible examples the local community can relate to of sea-level-rise impacts that have already occurred.
• Use modeling tools such as SLAMM to provide dramatic, easy-to-grasp visuals of what the landscape will look like in the future.
• Engage in an open community dialog to find out what’s important to locals and to explore alternatives for reaching their goals.
Only by taking a broad, new perspective to finding creative solutions for addressing climate change-related problems and to educating and involving local communities and partners can FWS meet its conservation mission and preserve our refuges, the network of special places where the needs of wildlife come first.