Tip of the Climate Spear

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 19, 2009 1:42 AM


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As I outlined here, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is grappling with global warming in a big way. Additionally, federal biologists from Florida to Arizona are currently at work on new long-range plans that factor in the unpredictable effects of climate change on vulnerable species. It's a complicated task, fraught with many uncertainties. Yet they are proceeding. "Among us biologists, climate change is a real issue that we have to deal with now," Scott Richardson, a FWS biologist based in Tucson, Arizona, told me today. There, in the biodiversity-rich Sonoran desert, where invasive species and sprawl are already stressing the native ecosystem to a near breaking point, climate change is a devilish wild card. "Most of the [climate] models out there show the Southwest becoming hotter and drier, beyond what it already is," says Richardson. "It's assumed that many species will shift north, but in some places like the Sky Islands--our mountain ranges--you can't go north. You can go higher, but you can only move up so far." That means less suitable habitat for at-risk species such as the Mexican spotted owl and mount Graham squirrel. As if crafting these new recovery plans weren't complex enough, federal biologists also have to decide which species have the best shot at making it. Says Richardson, "The really frustrating thing about this is that you have to prioritize because resources and funding are limited. What you hope for is that you're basing your decision on the best information available." Even then, success is far from assured. As described in its draft strategic plan, the FWS identifies two types of adaptive managment for climate change: "reactive" and "anticipatory." For example, "combating rising sea level by pumping sand ashore to replenish beaches and maintain habitat for nesting sea turtles and shorebirds" is considered reactive adaptation. The second approach manages "toward future, and often less certain, landscape conditions by predicting and working with the effects of climate change." So to use the same example, anticipatory adaptation would mean sacrificing existing beaches to rising sea level to focus instead on establishing "new shorelines landward for nesting sea turtles and shorebirds." And you got pissed off at piping plovers because their seasonal nesting protections cut into your beach volleyball. How does no beach at all strike you? I jest. What I'm getting at here is that safeguarding vulnerable wildlife from climate change will require many tough calls in the months and years ahead. Land managers and biologists are already agonizing over this. Tomorrow, Florida FWS biologists weigh in with their titanic climate change quandry.

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