Posted on 26 May 2011.
Restored Marsh: Area inside stakes used to be open water. Photo: Noah Matson
Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with a few other Defenders colleagues. The refuge, at over 27,000 acres, is one of the largest protected areas in the state, and is famous among birders and local residents for its large concentrations of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, bald eagles, and is also home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. Since the 1930’s, however, Blackwater has lost over 8,000 acres of marsh from a combination of sea level rise, subsidence, and the impact of invasive nutria that eat marsh grass and contribute to erosion.
We met with refuge staff who took us out on the refuge in airboats to see first-hand the marsh, the marsh loss, and the marsh restoration the refuge had implemented. The refuge had experimented with using a dredger to spray mud onto former marsh to raise the marsh bed, followed by planting marsh grasses to stabilize the soil. Through these projects the refuge has restored 20 acres of marsh, and that marsh has remains today, over a decade after the restoration was completed. A success story.
But the refuge continues to lose 300 acres/year.
So with that restoration success story in mind, the refuge staff have an audacious proposal: barge or pipe mud and soil from the dredging of the Baltimore harbor approach channel in the Chesapeake Bay to the refuge to repeat the marsh restoration on thousands of acres, a cost of over a billion dollars.
Two hundred miles south from Blackwater lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, also a low-lying coastal refuge facing the impacts of sea level rise. Alligator River is mostly made up of “pocosin”, a type of forested wetland found in the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina. The refuge, along with surrounding refuges, is home to the only wild population of endangered red wolves in the world. There, refuge staff, the Nature Conservancy and other partners are implementing adaptation measures to slow coastal erosion and salt water intrusion to protect the refuge’s forests and marshes. Most projections of sea level rise put a large portion of the refuge under water in the next 50 years.
If I was the refuge manager for Blackwater, Alligator River, or any of the over 160 coastal national wildlife refuges in the country, I would probably be thinking about similar adaptation strategies to stem the impacts of sea level rise on the place I was sworn to protect. But the impacts of climate change force a different focus, and a different scale of thinking. As stewards of protected areas and wildlife populations, we have to ask – why does it matter if Blackwater or Alligator River goes under water? What are our conservation goals and how are they affected by the impacts of climate change and where, given those impacts, should we target scare conservation dollars?
For Blackwater, which was established primarily for migratory birds, the real question is how will sea level rise impact migratory bird habitat throughout the Chesapeake Bay, not only at Blackwater. It may be cheaper to restore or create new habitat elsewhere in the Bay, for instance closer to the available dredge material from the Baltimore Harbor approach channel. These are questions an individual refuge manager cannot answer alone.
For Alligator River, while important for migratory birds, its critical importance to biodiversity conservation is providing habitat for endangered red wolves. The loss of over half the refuge in the coming decades will have a significant impact on the red wolf population. So the question for managers is will we have a viable population of red wolves with this loss of habitat? Regardless of the answer to that question, the recovery plan for the red wolf calls for the establishment of three populations, and with the impending impacts of sea level rise on the only existing population, there should be renewed emphasis on establishing the two additional populations. Again, these are decisions an individual refuge manager cannot make alone.
Wildlife and natural resources climate change adaptation forces us to take a broad-scale view. Before zeroing in on the impacts of climate change on a particular place, we need new mechanisms and institutions to help policy makers, managers, and scientists work together to understand how wildlife and habitats will respond to the impacts of climate change regionally and across jurisdictional boundaries.
The Obama administration has launched a number of initiatives that hold some promise for achieving this goal. The Interior Department is establishing Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, or LCCs, to bring partners together to better understand landscape-scale resources and challenges like climate change. LCCs have been hampered, however, by competing agency missions and confusion over the LCCs’ unique role compared to other programs. The administration is also crafting a National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. The National Strategy is an opportunity to call for broad-scale assessments and planning for adaptation to assist local managers in making strategic adaptation decisions.
Protecting Blackwater, Alligator River, and all of our refuges from the impacts of climate change is important. But we should do so in the context of addressing the much bigger task before us, figuring out how to make entire systems of wildlife and habitat resilient to climate change.