Tag Archive | "wetlands"

Shifting Farm Safety Net Threatens Conservation Investments

Shifting Farm Safety Net Threatens Conservation Investments

The Farm Bill has an entire title dedicated to conservation, and USDA, which implements the Farm Bill, dedicates tens of millions of dollars to helping restore and recover species like the sage grouse and red-cockaded woodpecker. But with the 2012 Farm Bill shifting farm subsidy support from direct payments to crop insurance, the farm safety net could work at cross purposes to conservation investments by encouraging farmers to plant on environmentally sensitive land.

To read more about conservation compliance and crop insurance subsidies, see our fact sheet.

Between 1982 and 2003, the U.S. lost 25 million acres of grassland, most of which was converted to cropland. Subsidies to farmers are an important factor driving this land use change because subsidies reduce the financial risks farmers face and government payments can make farming marginal land profitable. A recent USDA report found that certain farm subsidies (crop insurance, marketing loans and disaster assistance payments) increased the conversion of habitat by 2.3 million acres in just a portion of the Northern Plains and with crop prices at record highs, between 1.5 million and 3.3 million acres of wetlands are at risk of conversion. It’s not only that insurance subsidy payments contribute to grassland and wetland conversion but that they contribute to this conversion on some of the most vulnerable land.

We have the tool to decrease these habitat losses – conservation compliance. The idea behind conservation compliance is simple: farmers receiving taxpayer support must take measures to protect environmental resources that provide valuable public benefits. That means not planting on native grassland or draining wetlands if they receive farm subsidies.

Conservation compliance has been part of direct payments since 1985 but was de-linked from crop insurance subsidies in 1996. As farm subsidies shift from direct payments to crop insurance in the 2012 Farm Bill, it is time to re-link full conservation compliance measures to crop insurance. With a bipartisan floor amendment, the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill does just that and now the House needs to follow suit.

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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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Bog Turtle

Saving America’s smallest turtle

Bog Turtle

Bog Turtle, Scienceray

Programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wetlands Reserve Program rely on voluntary conservation measures, providing financial support to private landowner’s wetlands restoration and conservation projects.   The Federal government is able to obtain conservation easements with landowners, and provides cost-share payments for wetland rehabilitation practices and the implementation of conservation measures, like setting up fences around identified habitat.  The hope of making a small profit can do a lot to convince a cost-conscious landowner to take the steps necessary to protect endangered species on their property, demonstrating the great potential of incentives in species recovery on private lands.

Why is this important?

Because the majority of America’s endangered species depend on private land for their survival; indeed, private land comprises 80 percent of threatened and endangered species habitat (Crouse et al. 2002).  What’s more, most of these species need active habitat restoration and management, and not just protection, in order to thrive.  Consider the threatened bog turtle, America’s most diminutive turtle.

Infant bog turtle, from turtlesandmoreturtles.blogspot.com

Bog turtle distribution map

The bog turtle is found from Maryland to New York in small isolated wetlands at the headwaters of the region’s streams and rivers (see distribution map on the left).  We tried to catch up with bog turtles on a recent survey of wetlands in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with expert herpetologists, Jason Tesauro and Brandon Ruhe.

We had high hopes of seeing a lot of bog turtles, but instead found some fresh tracks, and happened upon three box turtles.  According to Jason and Brandon, prime viewing time for bog turtles actually occurs earlier in the spring, and in the fall.  In the summer months, they prefer to retreat into the underbrush and burrow into the mud, living off a healthy diet of slugs and other prey.  It is also possible that we simply did not spot them; wetland meadows, sunny but moist, are optimal habitat, but over the course of the years bog turtle habitats have turned into overly dense thickets often consisting of invasive plants – the dense vegetation made our search more difficult.

Example of agriculture-related development near bog turtle habitat.

Nearby agricultural activity and development has resulted in secondary impacts, most notably nutrient loading.  An enriched soil mineral content is a haven for invasive plants and may have caused the unnaturally productive growth of certain native plants, like maple trees, triggering succession and disrupting turtle microhabitats.  In stark contrast to what perfect turtle habitat should look like – low-lying vegetation, soft wet soil and plenty of sun exposure – some of the conservation easements we visited were grown over with tall grasses, invasive trees and woody thickets.  The disappearance of traditional or prehistoric grazers (bison, elk and mastodon) means that these turtles’ best hope is habitat protection and controlled grazing by farm animals like cows, goats and sheep, combined with the eradication of invasive species.  And since 95% of bog turtle habitat lies within private properties, landowner incentives and active management are crucial to bog turtle recovery efforts.

Conservation easement boundary indicator issued by the USDA on the first private property we visited.

Ideal nesting habitat for bog turtles consists of low-lying tussocks of grass, supported by a bed of soft mud.

Jake picking his way through cattails, ferns, sedges, rose bushes and skunk cabbage – a textbook example of overrun habitat.

In our conversations with Jason and Brandon, it became rapidly apparent that not only are bog turtles highly conservation-reliant, but our main tool for protection is the USDA Wetlands Reserve Program.  This program is critical to providing the funding to eradicate invasive plants, manage herds of grazers and protect and restore wetland hydrology in dozens of wetlands throughout Pennsylvania that are critical to the turtle’s survival.

We were lucky enough to find turtle tracks on this visit, but if we transition towards and strengthen voluntary active management measures to rehabilitate this conservation-reliant species’ habitat, maybe we’ll actually see some turtles next time we visit these swamps.

Bog turtle tracks, but no bog turtles this time around!

Jason Tesauro is the owner of Jason Tesauro Consulting; Brandon Ruhe is a co-founder of MACHAC and Aqua-Terra Environmental Ltd.  Both are United States Fish and Wildlife Service Qualified Bog Turtle Surveyors.

Co-authored with Jake Li and Tim Male.

DT Crouse, LA Mehrhoff, MJ Parkin, DR Elam, LY Chen. 2002. Endangered Species Recovery and the SCB Report: A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Perspective. Ecological Applications 12: 719-723.

Posted in 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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A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon.

Can coastal wetlands adapt to climate change?

A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon.

A wetland in South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Charleston, Oregon. Photo by Bruce Taylor.

Based on evidence of past changes , we know that coastal wetlands can be surprisingly adaptable to changes in sea level. Rising sea levels can actually cause higher rates of sediment deposition in many types of estuaries, so that the floor of the wetland increases in elevation along with the rising sea. This process helps explain the persistence of these unique and highly productive ecosystems through times of much higher and much lower sea levels than today. But despite this inherent adaptability, a number of important coastal marshes, including those in Chesapeake Bay and parts of the Mississippi River Delta, are currently experiencing submersion and erosion and are expected to be heavily impacted by future sea-level rise .

A recent article in the journal Geophysical Research Letters  looks more closely at these feedbacks and what they mean for coastal wetlands in the future. The authors found that the response of coastal marshes to sea-level rise depended both on the rate of rise and the amount of sediment found in the marsh water. Their model showed that marshes with very little suspended sediment could not keep up with even a very slow rise in sea-level, while those with more sediment could adapt to a rise of several centimeters per year. (Tidal range, the difference between high and low tide, also affected the response.) At the higher rates of sea-level rise projected by more recent studies, however, only marshes with very high sediment concentrations and very large tidal ranges could be expected to survive beyond the end of the 21st century. Others would fail to keep up and would eventually be inundated with water.

This article is an interesting example of the importance of feedbacks and ecosystem responses in modeling climate change impacts. More than that, though, it offers at least two compelling lessons for those of us interested in managing ecosystems for climate change adaptation.

First, we can see that a lot of the impacts we’ve had on natural systems over the past few centuries will greatly limit their ability to adapt to climate change. While some coastal marshes are naturally low in sediment, others have been so affected by flood control and other changes that they are submerging even under current sea levels. In some cases, we can restore some of the adaptive capacity of these systems by reversing past damage. 

But the case of the coastal marshes also highlights the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and as dramatically as possible. Many ecosystems can adapt to climate change up to a certain point, and we may be able to give them an additional boost by improving management practices. However, for many ecological systems abrupt changes may occur once thresholds or tipping point are reached–beyond which the system can no longer absorb change and shifts to a new state.  In the case of coastal wetlands such a threshold would occur when the rate of sea level rise outpaces the ability of the system to generate new marsh.  Once these wetlands are finally submerged and converted to open water it is very unlikely that they will be able to return to their former state. Unless we greatly limit the rate and magnitude of climate change, there will be very little we can do to help ecosystems adapt to the rapid, extreme changes in climate to which we are now committing ourselves. 

Kirwan, M.L. et al. Limits on the adaptability of coastal marshes to rising sea level. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L23401 (2010).

Posted in Climate Change, Pacific NorthwestComments (0)


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