Tag Archive | "biodiversity"

Graphium sarpedon

Paying the Price of Extinction Debt

The fact that species are being lost at an unprecedented rate is not in dispute, but how can conservation biologists who are trying to create protected areas account for extinctions which are occurring today because of events in the past?

Extinction is a natural process, but the current rate of species loss – at least 100 times what would be expected under normal conditions1 – is anything but natural. It is common knowledge that species are being lost as a result of human activities, but the fact that extinctions can occur because of historical events as well as contemporary pressures is less well known. This phenomenon is called extinction debt2 and has been documented by researchers working in a range of habitats3, 4, 5.

When an area of habitat becomes fragmented, the isolated patches which remain are not able to support the same array of species as the intact site due to a reduction in the amount of available resources. Over time, many of the species trapped within the patch will die off until, eventually, a new equilibrium is reached and the patch is only occupied by the species that it is able to support. The time taken for equilibrium to be reached is known as “relaxation time”3, because the habitat patch is relaxing back to equilibrium after a considerable disturbance.

In 2012, researchers from Japan studied the diversity of butterflies in a range of habitat patches scattered across Tokyo. They discovered that existing species richness was more closely correlated with the habitat conditions of 1971 than present day habitat conditions5, an indication of an extinction debt that has yet to be paid. They also mapped the predicted extinction debt of different habitat patches and found that the loss of species from large patches is likely to be lower than the loss from small patches5.

Graphium sarpedon

Graphium sarpedon, the blue triangle butterfly, is frequently found in Tokyo, where Soga and Koike (2012) mapped the potential extinction debt of butterfly species found in habitat patches in urban environments.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maps which indicate where biodiversity is likely to decline in the future can be used to inform prioritization. Instead of focusing limited resources on the protection of areas that are projected to lose biodiversity, conservation practitioners can more optimally focus their efforts on areas where species are more likely to persist into the future. Prioritization can even be based around the newly emerging concept of “conservation credit”6, which accounts for the colonization of newly suitable habitat by species from other areas.

However, it is important to remember that the disturbances and fragmentation leading to species loss through extinction debt are, in the majority of cases, the result of human activities. Extinction debt doesn’t just illustrate the complexity of the current biodiversity crisis; it emphasizes the importance of protecting habitat in the present in order to secure biodiversity into the future.


1. Pimm, S.L., and C.N. Jenkins. 2005. Sustaining the Variety of Life. Scientific American 293: 66 – 73
2. Tilman, D., R.M. May, C.L. Lehman, and M.A. Novak. 1994. Habitat destruction and the extinction debt. Nature 317: 65 – 66
3. Diamond, J.M. 1972. Biogeographic kinetics: estimation of relaxation times for avifaunas of southwest Pacific islands. PNAS 69: 3199 – 3203
4. Krauss, J., R. Bommarco, M. Guardiola, R.K. Heikkinen, A. Helm, M. Kuussaari, and R. Lindborg. 2010. Habitat fragmentation causes immediate and time‐delayed biodiversity loss at different trophic levels. Ecology Letters 13: 597 – 605
5. Soga, M. and S. Koike. 2012. Mapping the potential extinction debt of butterflies in a modern city: implications for conservation priorities in urban landscapes. Animal Conservation 16: 1 – 11
6. Vellend. M., and H.M. Kharouba. 2013. Setting conservation priorities when what you see is not what you get. Animal Conservation 16: 14 – 15

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Preserving the Genetic Diversity of Endangered Species

Preserving the Genetic Diversity of Endangered Species

How can conservationists prioritize species that are already classified as endangered? The answer to this difficult question might just be hidden inside the genes of the endangered species themselves.

Conservation resources might be finite, but the threats to our natural world are not. With so many species struggling to survive, it is more important than ever for conservationists to use their limited funding in the most effective (and efficient) way possible. But how are conservationists supposed to decide which endangered species should be given top priority? In the past, the value of a species – whether economic or social – was the dominant factor when it came to directing funding. In recent years, however, the science of prioritization has become an increasingly important aspect of conservation biology1. One emerging form of scientific prioritization focuses on a relatively new way of measuring the value of a species: their genetic uniqueness.

Genetic uniqueness, also known as evolutionary distinctiveness, is a way of prioritizing species that takes into account the relationships between species groups. According to this method, a species with a lot of close relatives should not be prioritized over a species with no close relatives, which will have been designated its own branch in the tree of life. While every species is genetically unique, most species share some of their genes with their close relatives. (Just look at chimpanzee and bonobos, which share 99.6% of their DNA with each other and 98.7% of their DNA with another close relative, humanity2.) This means that species with few or no close relatives contain genes that can’t be found in any other species.

Darwin's Tree of Life

Charles Darwin’s preliminary sketches of the tree of life were some of the earliest attempts to establish the relationship between species. By using our modem understanding of these relationships, scientists can prioritize genetically unique species for conservation.

Source: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/

Why are genes so important when it comes to setting priorities for conservation? Genes are the building blocks of life. They determine the characteristics of a species and, through the process of natural selection, help species to adapt to future conditions3. By preserving genetically unique species instead of lots of genetically similar species, conservationists stand a better chance of maintaining the essential foundations of ecosystems that are ready to survive whatever the future has in store. Given the uncertainties of climate change, this adaptability will be even more important in the decades to come.

Although it would be naïve to assume that conservation can take place without taking into account the social and economic aspects of conservation, studies have shown that species with a high level of genetic uniqueness are actually more threatened than other species4, 5, 6.Whatever method of prioritization is favored, time is of the essence when it comes to conserving the genetic heritage of the species that share our planet.


1. Game, E.T., P. Kareiva, and H.P. Possingham. 2013. Six Common Mistakes in Conservation Priority Setting. Conservation Biology 27: 480 – 485
2. Science Now. 2012. Bonobos Join Chimps as Closest Human Relatives. Available at: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/06/bonobo-genome-sequenced.html/ [Accessed 2/7/2013]
3. Crozier, R., P-M. Agapow , and M.A. Smith. 2009. Conservation genetics: from species to habitats. Biology International 47: 73 – 79
4. Redding, D.W., and A.Ø. Mooers. 2006. Incorporating Evolutionary Measures into Conservation Prioritization. Conservation Biology 20: 1670 – 1678
5. Daru, B.H., K. Yessoufou, L.T. Mankga, and T.J. Davies. 2013. A Global Trend Towards the Loss of Evolutionarily Unique Species in Mangrove Ecosystems. PLoS ONE 8: e66686
6. Isaac, N.J., S.T. Turvey, B. Collen, C. Waterman, and J.E. Baillie. 2007. Mammals on the EDGE: Conservation Priorities Based on Threat and Phylogeny. PLoS ONE 6: e296

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How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

The Forest Service recently adopted new planning rule that will guide the agency’s process for forest planning for the next decade or so. For the first time, the planning rule directs the staff to consider ecosystem services when deciding what management actions to implement on the public lands. Following the adoption of the new rule, the Service issued 500+ pages of detailed “directives” to guide implementation of the new planning rule.

What are ecosystem services?  According to a recent article authored by several researchers with the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest Research Station, In the context of public land management, ecosystem services are beneficial outcomes that derive from landscape conditions (e.g., forest structures, species compositions) and ecological processes as they are altered by both natural disturbance and management activities.

Though the draft directives mention ecosystem services multiple times, what effect this relatively new term will have on the planning process remains somewhat of a mystery. On the positive side, addressing ecosystem services may lead to the consideration of a much broader spectrum of values, including some tangible benefits like improved water and air quality, more and better fish and wildlife habitat, improvement in the condition of endangered species, and additional opportunities for nature-based recreation. The new emphasis may also lead to improved integration across programs, a reconsideration of management “targets” to include an assessment of ecological conditions and trends, and an improved understanding of context implied in the new “all lands approach” to management.  Ecosystem services assessments can also be a powerful tool for collaboration with stakeholders. Ideally, incorporating ecosystem services into forest planning will add value without overly complicating the assessment and decision process, raising the costs, or delaying implementation.

On the flip side, even a great idea can go astray if it is implemented in a manner that simply applies a new idea or term to an old way of doing business. The Forest Service staff will always be under political pressure from Congress and some interest groups to increase the output of commodities at the expense of protecting the ecological values on the land. Framed entirely as a utilitarian, anthropocentric concept, some interpret ecosystem services to include only benefits to human communities. Others extend the construct even further to emphasize only those values that can be quantified, and a cottage industry has emerged among economists offering tools and methods to assign monetary value to selected services. While it is sometimes very useful to calculate the monetary costs and benefits of different management options, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to apply dollar values to relatively intangible attributes like biodiversity.  Agencies can and do make decisions every day based on society’s evolving values and preferences, expressed in a variety of ways including the adoption of federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act. Meaningful engagement with the public during the decision process – including local, state, regional, and national interests – can lead to decisions that balance human needs for products like timber, forage and fuel against the need to sustain the lands and waters on public lands for future generations.

Given the attention that ecosystem services have received within academic and some government circles, there is also a risk that instead of adding value to the complex process of evaluating the potential benefits an ecosystem will provide over time, an entirely new process will be established.  If this new process focuses primarily on the benefits that ecosystems provide to people, without giving adequate consideration to the underlying ecological attributes and processes that create these services in the first place, then management to maximize certain ecosystem services ends up competing with, rather than enhancing values that are especially challenging to measure, like biodiversity. If ecosystem services offer a way of viewing the world in which the intrinsic values of nature are acknowledged along with utilitarian outputs, it could serve as a uniting rather than divisive force.  However, there will always be tradeoffs between services, human beneficiaries, and the needs of present vs. future generations.

There are a few important steps that the Forest Service can take to ensure that the ecosystem services requirement in the new directives has a positive influence on forest planning.

  1. Adopt the definition of ecosystem services quoted above in place of the narrower definition limited by utility to humans, thereby explicitly including biodiversity – either as a service, necessary support for services, or both.
  2. Integrate ecosystem service assessments with ecological assessments rather than creating a separate process.
  3. Ensure that the planning process is as interdisciplinary as possible, taking advantage of the expertise of natural and social scientists, practitioners, and stakeholders, working across traditional boundaries and engaging people with diverse perspectives.
  4. Working with other agencies and organizations, invest in the development of more consistent measures of ecological integrity and biodiversity across jurisdictions and at multiple scales to improve our collective capacity understand ecological conditions and trends.
  5. Integrate the ecosystem services assessments with the “all lands” approach by engaging private landowners and other agencies in the process, before attempting to quantify and/or monetize ecosystem services at the project or site scale.

The Forest Service has struggled with communicating its mission over the past few decades. Creatively applying an ecosystem services approach to explain the benefits of the public lands to Congress and the public has great potential. Although different forests will likely approach this challenge differently, the new approach may create a pathway to a more harmonious and effective relationship with the public.  Or it may continue the divisive and antagonistic relationship under a new banner until the next shiny object comes into view. There isn’t much time to get it right.

You can find Defenders’ full comments on the proposed forest planning directives here.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public LandsComments (0)

chain for newsletter

Workshop Participants Build Their Land Trust’s Vision of Climate Change Adaptation

Workshop participants at Maryland's land trust conference build their situtation analysis for their target habitats.

In discussions about the role of land trusts in implementing climate change adaptation strategies, many have suggested that most of what land trusts do is already adaptation, while others have expressed the contrary opinion that adaptation is not “business as usual” for land trusts. Others worry that adaptation planning will take a lot of time and resources away from the day-to-day work of saving land. And others feel there is not yet enough information to start planning for how they will adapt their work to this new reality. These differing ideas can be confusing and discouraging.

To help get past this confusion, Defenders’ Living Lands facilitated workshops at the most recent Southeast Regional, Virginia, and Maryland land trust conferences to help the land trust community and their partners define their own vision for helping their communities adapt in the face of climate change.

The goal of this facilitated workshop was to demonstrate a quick and inexpensive process by which land trusts can begin to envision how climate change adaptation fits into their land conservation mission.

In this participatory workshop, the Defenders’ facilitated an exercise to build a common understanding of the biological, social, economic, political, and institutional systems that affect their conservation priorities. This process, called a “situation analysis”, is described in Step 1 of the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. The Open Standards were developed by the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) to bring together common concepts, approaches, and terminology to help practitioners improve the practice of conservation.

Planning for climate change adaptation will require that land trusts assess the drivers (e.g. air and water temperature increases, precipitation changes, sea level rise, species shifts in ranges) and the indirect and direct threats (e.g. floods, human responses, drought, invasive species outbreaks) to their conservation values under climate change. A “situation analysis” is a useful tool for documenting the drivers and threats affecting a biodiversity target as well as for identifying conservation actions that can be applied to contributing factors, direct threats, or even biodiversity targets.

We began the exercise by identifying the biodiversity targets as the habitat types used in the State Wildlife Action Plans of the southeastern US. For each habitat type we identified direct threats (which we cross-walked with the Standardized Threats Taxonomy developed by the CMP).

Using the US Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast report and the Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity, we identified the contributing factors related to climate change (i.e. climate change drivers) that lead to the direct threats and stresses on the target habitats. Contributing factors are often the entry points for conservation action (although actions may work through direct threats or even the target in some cases).

Then we identified how altered climate conditions link to direct threats using intermediate contributing factors. The facilitators helped the participants think through the causal relationships linking the altered climate conditions to the direct threats. The following thought process was helpful: Altered climate conditions result in this contributing factor which results in this direct threat which affects [via a stress] this target.

We were sure to discuss interactions between the altered climate conditions and non-climate-related threats (e.g. urban development). We identified potential relationships between climate factors and impacts on biological systems such as species range shifts, seasonal shifts, and disrupted biotic interactions. Ultimately the process of building the conceptual model assisted the group in identifying intervention points, or adaptation strategies.

The conceptual model shows the state of the world before taking action; the next step is for participants to think about adaptation strategies and the anticipated outcomes that will ultimately impact the habitat target. Participants identified broad categories of climate change adaptation strategies (e.g., outreach, policy, land protection, stewardship) and then described specific strategies that would reduce the effects of a contributing factor or direct threat on the habitat target.

In the example causal-relationships chain, yellow hexigons show adaptation strategies that intervene on contributing factors (orange) or direct threats (pink) to reduce stress on target habitats (green).

We talked about which strategies participants felt were most likely to achieve the desired outcome and which they felt were the most relevant to their land conservation work. We found it useful to consider several factors when evaluating strategies including: the likelihood the strategy will be successful, the feasibility of the strategy, the cost of the strategy, and the gap the strategy would address. Participants also identified the sources of uncertainty associated with the strategies (e.g., uncertainty associated with the direction/magnitude of altered climate conditions, the biophysical impact, or the outcome of the strategy).

As a wrap-up exercise, the group discussed what they felt were the opportunities and barriers to implementing some of the adaptation strategies they had identified. Many felt that the public’s skepticism about climate change and lack of funding were the largest barriers. But they also felt that the issue of climate change was potentially an opportunity to reinforce community support for their land conservation activities. Many participants felt the exercise was helpful to their thinking about climate change adaptation and thought they would use this process to initiate discussions with their organizations and stakeholders about climate change adaptation.


References and Resources 

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2007. Using Results Chains to Improve Strategy Effectiveness. An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success, Bethesda, MD.

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2009. Using Conceptual Models to Document a Situation Analysis: An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success Bethesda, MD.

Geyer, J. et al . 2011. Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Synthesis Report

Salasfsky, N., D. Salzer, A. J. Stattersfield, C. Hilton-Taylor, R. Neugarten, S. H. M. Butchart, B. Collen, N. Cox, L. L. Master, S. O’Connor, and D. Wilkie. 2008. A standard lexicon for biodiversity conservation: Unified classifications of threats and actions. Conservation Biology 22: 897-911.

U.S. Global Change Research Program, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.) 2009 Climate Change Effects from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast.

US Global Change Research Program, Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Regions and Sectors.

A full summary of the workshop with lists of strategies and the situation analyses is available here.

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Lake Erie watersnake recovery is a success for the ESA – and for invasive species?

Photo courtesy of Richard King. Lake Erie watersnake (bottom), with two closely related specimens. The Lake Erie watersnake has fully recovered from the threat extinction thanks to the ESA, and will soon be delisted.

This past Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Lake Erie watersnake, Nerodia sipedon insularum is now fully recovered and will be removed from the federal endangered species list (76 Fed. Reg. 50680). With a population of just under 10,000 snakes in 2010 (almost two times the recovery target), the Lake Erie watersnake joins the ranks of the bald eagle, the Aleutian Canada goose, the American alligator, and 18 other species that have come back from the brink of extinction, thanks to the regulatory protections and conservation measures of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This event comes as a welcome victory after furious debates over a rider-ridden House Interior Appropriations bill in July and early August. The watersnake’s delisting is a success that proves the ESA is not broken, as critics are wont to declare, and instead reinforces the Act’s long record of success.

Listed as ‘threatened’ only 12 years ago, the Lake Erie watersnake’s recovery story has a twist to it: its remarkable resurgence was, in part, made possible by an “invasive” species, the round goby. Since the round goby first appeared in Lake Erie in the early 1990s, the watersnake’s diet has changed from being based on native fishes and amphibians to a diet composed of more than 90% round goby, with remarkable consequences – increased watersnake growth rates, increased body size, and increase in fecundity, with female watersnakes producing on average 25% more offspring post-invasion (Richard B. King Laboratory, Northern Illinois University). Increase in benthic fish biomass in Lake Erie increased prey availability, effectively dismissing the issue of low watersnake fecundity; the round goby’s success in the ecosystem means that the watersnake has a significant and secure prey source for years to come.

The narrative of the Lake Erie watersnake’s recovery adds an interesting dimension to discourse on invasive species and how we evaluate their impacts on ecosystems. While the majority of the literature focuses on the detrimental effects invasives have on the adopted environment (Byers 2002, Fritts and Leasman-Tanner 2001, Rhymer and Simberloff 1996, etc.), the potential benefits to ecosystems deserves the scientific community’s attention, and calls for an honest appraisal of the current stigma against invasive species.

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koopmann 084

Protecting ranchers protects wildlife habitat – What?

Picture from the California Cattlemen's Association

Yes, it’s true. For generations, many ranchers have been managing their lands for wildlife on purpose and inadvertently. In California, private ranches contain unique and vulnerable habitats, such as vernal pools, grasslands, and oak woodlands. These ecosystems have been largely shaped over thousands of years to withstand and thrive under disturbances from fire, roaming buffalo, deer, and other ungulates. With the loss of these large herds and natural disturbances, ranchers have stepped in to mimic many of these disturbances through management of livestock. As Pelayo Alvarez says, Co-director of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, “They are ‘keystone species’ – you lose them and you lose the ecological integrity of the lands they manage.”

Defenders of Wildlife, along with the Coalition and some of their partners are working on keeping ranchers ranching by paying them for the ecological and socio-economic benefits they provide. Current conservation programs mostly pay ranchers for their practices, however there are groups working on moving beyond this form of conservation and paying ranchers for actual outcomes. These innovative conservation programs are taking shape in the form of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs and/or markets.

To help inform the formation of these innovative conservation programs in California, Defenders of Wildlife conducted a survey of ranchers, the first of its kind to focus on the supplier perspective towards PES programs or markets. The survey was designed to give insight into the demographics of ranchers; their knowledge and attitudes towards current conservation programs; their level of interest in participating in future PES programs or markets; and outlining the most important aspects of a potential future program with respect to administrator, level of payment, and length of contract.

Five key insights emerged from the survey’s results:

  • The threat of rangeland conversion in California is real and immediate and the time is ripe for a new approach to conservation
  • California ranchers’ high rate of participation in public conservation programs, coupled with their dissatisfaction with the perceived administrative hurdles associated with these programs, offers an opportunity to introduce more appealing conservation options.
  • California ranchers are strongly interested in PES programs, particularly those tied to wildlife habitat.
  • California ranchers recognize the importance of the environmental benefits provided by their land and want to improve these benefits with the right mix of assistance and incentives.
  • California ranchers prefer flexible program structures that are built on shorter contracts, larger payments, and non-profit organizations or private companies as administrators.

The report is still in its final stages and has not been released to the general public. A shorter report and blog post will be accompanied with the release of the final report within the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Posted in California, Paying for ConservationComments (0)

Astrid-All aflutter about climate change

All Aflutter about Climate Change

Photo: Astrid Caldas

Climate change is among the most daunting environmental problems faced by the world today.  What with sea level rise, droughts, fires, and floods, it seems that the world is being taken by storm (pun intended).  Yet, the impacts of climate change on butterflies, and what we can do assist them, is still a fledgling field.

Butterflies and moths are members of the order Lepidoptera, and provide an array of what we call ecosystem services, including pollination.  They are also excellent indicators of environmental quality, and have an important aesthetic value, being enjoyed by people around the world.  Climate change is likely to affect Lepidoptera in many ways.  Most commonly, species will experience changes in range, distribution, and population sizes.  Another way that Lepidoptera may respond to climate change is through phenological changes Species are already shifting ranges due to climate change, usually moving to higher latitudes or elevations.  Species are emerging earlier in the spring due to warmer temperatures.  There are many instances of disruption of essential interactions with food plants and prey.  And other effects of climate change are yet unknown.

The most recent issue of the Journal of Insect Conservation was dedicated exclusively to Lepidoptera conservation, but only a small fraction of the papers dealt with climate change.  When we consider all the real and potential impacts of climate change on Lepidoptera, the number of studies addressing butterfly conservation under a changing climate is worrisome.  One article did a literature review of all papers in leading journals published on ISI Web of Science between January 2005 and December 2009 about climate change and/or biodiversity. Only 9 out of 73 papers that showed a link between climate change and declining biodiversity studied insects, 8 of which dealt with Lepidoptera. According to the author, these few papers clearly showed Lepidoptera to be very sensitive to climate change: butterflies in Europe and North America have shifted their distributions due to recent warming, species in temperate regions have been showing phenological changes related to an earlier onset of spring, and bioclimate models of the distributions of 69 butterfly species in Mexico, South Africa and Australia contributed to the estimates of extinction risk from climate change for 1,103 species in total. 

My own search on climate and Lepidoptera in the Web of Science just last month (done without a set time frame) yielded about 50 papers.  Although that is not a comprehensive search, it is certainly not impressive!  Below is a breakdown of the focus of the papers:

Focus of paper Number of studies
Review article focusing on CC     9
Predictions under CC    15
Effect of CC on single species    11
Effect of CC on assemblage    16
Effects of CC on species interactions     6


I recently attended the Annual Meeting of The Lepidopterists’ Society with a call to action: Lepidoptera researchers should be leaders in documenting phenological changes of butterflies and moths in response to climate change.  Specifically:

  • Include climate-relevant information in the society’s Season Summary publication of field observations.  In addition to range extensions, host plant associations, and population dynamics, I proposed that they make an effort to include consistent first sightings of species known for a long time from specific locations.  Also, include any changes in host plant association, phenology disruption, or other change in a known pattern that can be related to a warmer climate.
  • Leverage these phenological observations by participating in the National Phenology Network, a national-level effort to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the US.  It currently has only 12 Lepidoptera species on its list, so I urged the society to become a partner and increase the number of species in that list.  They would bring specialized input to the network, whose capabilities would be of much value to conservationists. 

If we are to keep enjoying butterflies and moths for years to come, we need more climate change-related studies.  We need to be aware of climate change-induced changes in Lepidoptera.  We may need reintroductions and managed relocation of species whose populations are declining and that have adequate, available habitat that could sustain a viable population under a warmer climate.  The time to act is now – otherwise we may lose some of the most beautiful creatures ever to flutter on earth 

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

Chesapeake Bay tidal marsh, David Curson, Audubon MD/DC

Climate Change Adaptation in Maryland’s Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

Chesapeake Bay tidal marsh, photo by David Curson, Audubon MD/DC

The State of Maryland is moving forward with critical climate change planning for coastal areas by figuring out how to protect lands into which soon-to-be-inundated wetlands and marshes can retreat. In response to the threat of sea level rise, these efforts are essential to maintaining the long-term ecological functions of storm surge buffering, carbon sequestration, water filtration, wildlife habitat, recreation and others that wetlands provide.

Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon Maryland/DC and the Lower Shore Land Trust have teamed up on a project focused on increasing the adaptive capacity of salt marshes and salt marsh obligate bird species in the Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

View video on Climate Change Adaptation in Maryland’s Somerset-Wicomico Marshes Important Bird Area

The coastal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay provide a range of “ecosystem services” that are critical for improving the water quality by helping to remove nutrients, chemicals, and sediment from urban and agricultural runoff before reaching the open water of the Bay. In addition, coastal wetlands provide a first line of defense against rising sea levels and increased storm damage, flooding and erosion.

These wetlands are habitat for ducks, geese and shorebirds and are home to unique flora and fauna, including two birds, the Seaside Sparrow and the Saltmarsh Sparrow, which are identified as Maryland species of greatest conservation concern in the Maryland Wildlife Diversity Conservation Plan. These species evolved in this tidal environment and are found only in salt marsh habitats along the U.S. Atlantic Coasts.

Sea level rise is impacting low-lying coastal lands at twice the global average rate. Maryland Department of Natural Resources explains that the State has already seen a foot of relative sea level rise during the past 100 years, causing the disappearance of 13 barrier islands from the Chesapeake Bay. Within the Chesapeake Bay, additional sea level rise impacts are already evident, including wetland erosion and forest die-back as a result of saltwater intrusion.

Our work will focus on assisting the Lower Shore Land Trust to identify the highest priority marsh migration corridors so that they can protect these areas from future development. This project takes place within the context of Defender’s work with state wildlife agencies to update their wildlife action plans to consider the impacts of climate change, as well as Defender’s Living Lands program that enhances the capacity of land trusts and their partners in protecting biodiversity in the face of climate change.

For more information on sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay, see the following online resources:

Maryland Commission on Climate Change  

Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change Phase I: Sea-level rise and coastal storms

National Wildlife Federation

U.S. Climate Change Science Program

North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative

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House votes to block helping farmers prepare for more droughts, floods, and pests

Coauthored by Aimee Delach

In a disturbing trend of attacking the government’s ability to prepare for climate risks, the House passed an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Agriculture spending bill that would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from implementing its new departmental regulation on climate change adaptation.  This amendment puts the nation at increased risk of food disruptions, forest fires, and huge economic losses.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who introduced the amendment, bizarrely claimed USDA’s climate adaptation policy was somehow a “backdoor door attempt to put a cap-and-trade program in place in the Department of Agriculture.”

Far from it.  The commonsense 2-page USDA policy (pdf) says only that agencies should plan for that future in a way that will prevent food disruptions, massive forest fires and economic hardships.  It reads, “Through adaptation planning, USDA will develop, prioritize, implement and evaluate actions to minimize climate risks and exploit new opportunities that climate change will bring.”

Tying the USDA’s hand with respect to preparing for climate change seems like a particularly bad idea while the nation is immersed in intense weather and climate-related disasters that are impacting agriculture and forestry– from the Mississippi River flood, to the Texas drought, to the Arizona fire.

According to Texan Matt Farmer:

“It’s as dry as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime,” said Farmer, 51, a plainspoken Texan not given to hyperbole. “I don’t remember a drought this widespread. I’ve got a lot of country that’s blowing, but I can’t do a thing about it.”

And the irony of Congressman Scalise’s amendment is that he is from Louisiana, which is not only bearing the brunt of much of the record Mississippi River flooding, but is simultaneously under a state-wide severe drought. Some farmers are getting hit with both extremes at once:

“I can’t get my crop out of one side of the levee because it’s too dry and I’ve lost my crop on the other side of the levee because it’s floating away,” said George Lacour, 48, of Morganza, [Louisiana] another farmer trying to juggle the seeming paradox.

The conditions we are seeing this year are breaking records around the country.  While La Niña is probably partly to blame, this year’s events are also consistent with the conditions researchers project are coming with climate change.  Looking at the past record would not have prepared anyone for the events this year – and the future is going to be different yet.

USDA’s climate change adaptation policy would have required agencies to plan for future changes in climate variability and extreme events on USDA programs to prepare for and adjust to anticipated changes.  The regulation is designed to ensure that “taxpayer resources are invested wisely and that USDA services and operations remain effective in current and future climate conditions.” 

The USDA itself is well aware of the challenges climate change will pose for its mission. They lay the problem out quite clearly in their 2010 Climate Change Science Plan:

As the climate changes, those responsible for managing land and water resources will need new information to help with their decision-making. For example, producers will need information to guide them on what to plant, when to plant, and what management strategies to employ during the growing season. Foresters, farmers, and ranchers will need information for management of risks posed by pests and fire. Water resource managers will need information for allocation of water resources between the demands of urban and rural populations, industry, biofuels, agriculture, and ecosystem services. USDA policymakers will need information to guide them in implementing or retooling programs impacting or impacted by climate change. At all levels, global food production data and projections will be necessary for anticipating large-scale socioeconomic feedbacks into U.S. production systems.

Here are some examples of the agencies in USDA and how they are responding to climate change and variability.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is USDA’s principal in-house research agency. ARS has a wide-ranging research program, including:

These and other research questions are vitally important for the maintenance of crop, livestock and human health under a changing climate.

Farm Service Agency (FSA) As the manager of disaster assistance and other commodity programs, FSA is on the front lines of the impact of weather and climate on our nation’s agricultural producers.  Just last month, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wrote to the USDA to seek Secretarial disaster declarations for 26 parishes, on the grounds that “Agricultural producers in the basin will face significant damage and loss to cropland and livestock as a result” of record flooding that forced the opening of the Morganza spillway.

Louisiana Rep. Salise’s amendment would prevent FSW from properly fulfilling its mission as administrator of these disaster programs if it can’t take climate change into account. The separate but related Risk Management Agency, which makes disaster declarations and determines insured cropland eligibility in disaster situations also needs the capabilities to anticipate and respond to climate change and variability.

Forest Service (FS) administers 193 million acres of forests and grasslands that belong to all Americans and also provides research and technical assistance to all forest landowners. In order to protect forest resources, species and ecosystems, and human life and property on and adjacent to forest lands, the Forest Service needs to be able to evaluate, prepare for and respond to climate change impacts on fire frequency and severity, invasive species, forest pests, and other ecosystem dynamics.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) NRCS provides leadership in a partnership effort to help people conserve, maintain and improve our natural resources and environment.

NRCS conservation programs assist producers and rural communities to reduce erosion, use water resources more efficiently, protect and enhance wildlife habitat, and more. These conservation investments will produce better results if they are done in a climate-smart fashion.

Don’t we want our government agencies to doing this important work to prepare for the changes ahead? 

In a statement issued in response the amendment, Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president for Defenders of Wildlife, said, “America’s farms, forests and ranchlands not only feed our country, but also help support abundant and diverse wildlife populations. Our food security, property and wildlife heritage are all at risk from increased frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, floods, fires and pests.

“Rep. Scalise and the 237 other members of the House are inhibiting the USDA’s ability to help farmers and forest owners and managers prepare for a future that includes more of the extreme weather events we have just experienced this spring. The future is not going to be the same as the past. This commonsense USDA policy says let’s plan for that future in a way that will prevent food disruptions, massive forest fires and economic hardships.”

The Senate should do right by the country’s farmers, forests and the people and wildlife that rely on them, and reject this amendment.

Posted in Agriculture, Climate ChangeComments (1)

Phenology and Climate Change

You have probably seen it, maybe in one newspaper or another.  Or maybe you heard it on the radio, or noticed it yourself.  It’s happening everywhere: timing of natural events is changing.  Many studies have documented the phenomenon: Miller-Rushing and Primack (2008) [used historical data on 43 plant species in Massachusetts to show that they are currently flowering an average of 7 days earlier compared to the second half of the 1800’s.  Parmesan (2006) wrote a comprehensive account of such changes in various organisms, and also changes in species ranges and in important ecological interactions of species, all of which are linked to climate change.

The periodic cycles through which plants and animals go is called phenology.  Over thousands of years, organisms have had their phenology defined and established through natural processes and environmental cues such as temperature changes.  Many of the organisms dependent on temperature changes to guide their phenology also developed some close relationships with other organisms essential for their survival, such as food plants or prey.  If the timing is off, due to factors such as climate change, those relationships will be affected, and the organisms may experience stress.  The Edith butterfly is a well-known example where climate change was a factor contributing to a density decrease and eventual local extinction of populations (although it was not the only factor at play).  According to Parmesan:

“The relationship between climate and survival of E. editha is typically mediated not by direct effects of temperature or precipitation on the insect, but by their indirect effects on timing of the butterfly’s life cycle relative to that of their host and nectar plants. […] The gradual warming and drying trend in southern California has likely led to a steady shortening of the window of time in which the host is edible, causing increased larval mortality in these southernmost populations.”

Of course, there has always been variation in timing for many natural events that are brought about by cues other than sunlight or photoperiod.  Temperature and humidity vary on a yearly basis, as exemplified by a warm winter or an unusually cold one.  However, there has been a conspicuous and proven pattern towards warmer temperatures in our recent past, and in spite of year-to-year variability, it has become clear that it is getting warmer earlier than it used to.  Maybe you and I don’t notice it, but those ultra-sensitive organisms, which perfected their phenological timing over thousands of years, certainly do.  And if they happen to be dependent on another organism whose phenology has not responded to increased temperatures in the same way, well, you get the picture. 

Unlike phenotypic changes, whereby organisms change their physical and/or structural appearance in response to climate change – and which can help a species adapt to climate change in the long run, because they are genetically based – phenological changes are just an immediate response with no adaptation value to be carried from generation to generation.  They can lead a species to endangerment, and eventually even to local extinction, if essential interactions are not kept correspondingly.  Therefore, we see that climate change not only can affect species directly, but also indirectly, in many and complex ways. 

It’s happening everywhere, and it is due to climate change.  There are many ways to detect important phenological changes, and there are various efforts underway that involve local communities.  See how you can help at the USA National Phenology Network website.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

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.

Posted in Climate ChangeComments (0)

Oregon Legislature Receives Report on Ecosystem Services and Markets

In 2009, Defenders of Wildlife and colleagues promoted a bill – likely the first of its kind in the country – to address the development of markets for ecosystem services. This bill, SB 513,  defines ecosystem services as the benefits human communities enjoy as a result of natural processes and biological diversity. It establishes a policy to protect ecosystem services across all land uses, encourages agencies to use market-based approaches to achieve conservation goals, and directed the Oregon Sustainability Board to convene a diverse group of stakeholders to address several thorny policy issues. The bill was based on policy recommendations contained in a report called Policy Cornerstones and Action Strategies for an Integrated Ecosystem Marketplace in Oregon.

The work group was supported by staff from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and included 28 people from diverse backgrounds. A policy-level ad hoc committee was formed to assist with political strategy and included another 17 people. Defenders staff was involved in managing the collaborative process and writing the report. Sara Vickerman was on the work group and is a member of the Oregon Sustainability Board.

The work group report was presented to the Oregon Legislature by the Sustainability Board in December 2010. It contained ten policy recommendations:

  1. Conservation and restoration goals need to be integrated across agencies to focus investment and priorities.
  2. More work is needed to address regulatory impediments to the application of market-based approaches.
  3. Public private partnerships are needed to develop more standardized tools for measuring ecosystem services.
  4. Agencies and local governments are encouraged to purchase ecological outcomes.
  5. Agencies should be able to sell ecosystem services under limited conditions.
  6. An adaptive management framework is needed to evaluate ecosystem service programs.
  7. State and local government are encouraged to use natural infrastructure in place of hard engineering.
  8. Planners should consider ecosystem services when making land use decisions.
  9. Pilot projects are needed to test the application of ecosystem service approaches.
  10. The policy dialogue needs to continue to address unresolved issues.

The lively, sometime contentious process included consideration of a series of case studies describing previous attempts, some successful, some frustrating and disappointing, to implement  wetland and conservation banking, water quality trading, and other programs. Common problems included conflicting agency missions, high transaction costs, and a lack of shared conservation goals.

Another bill has been drafted and will be introduced in the 2011 legislative session, which begins in February. Stay tuned for information on the next round of policy changes.

Posted in Pacific Northwest, Paying for ConservationComments (0)

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.