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Saving wildlife in a warmer world

A warmer world will have adverse effects on wildlife. We can help save animals, but it will take savvier approaches, scientists say.

By Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2009

Whether it’s a polar bear clinging to a melting iceberg in the Arctic or a tiny, rabbitlike pika panting atop a warming mountain in western North America, scientists say that these species and others could be historical footnotes unless people help them survive.

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Pushing animals to the brink – and then trying to bring them back – is nothing new for humans. Remedies have long included setting aside land for a special habitat (spotted owls) or making it illegal to kill them (whooping cranes).

But sweeping changes that would accompany projected climate change mean that an animal’s traditional range may no longer be habitable to it in a few years – or that a key food source or resource it needs is disappearing. And that calls for different solutions from those in the past.

“The business-as-usual approach to managing wildlife populations and resources is no longer likely to work very well,” says John Wiens, chief conservation science officer for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in Petaluma, Calif. “We can’t say anymore, ‘Hey, we’ll do some management to control this threat, and everything will be hunky-dory,’ or ‘Preserve some habitat and some organisms, and everything will be fine.’ ”

There are signs of positive action, however. After years of what many saw as foot-dragging, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is leading states and other organizations in taking the first steps toward what could become a radical departure from today’s species-recovery model.

The FWS’s plan is a comprehensive and predictive “adaptation management” plan to help troubled wildlife. Its centerpiece is the creation of eight new regional landscape conservation cooperatives (LCCs), the first of up to 20 nationwide that will enlist multiple partners to deal with global warming’s expected effects.

Along with the US Geological Survey (USGS), states, and others, the FWS is now holding regional conferences on how to shape the cooperatives.

“We’re just at the very beginning stages of LCC development,” says Dan Ashe, deputy director of the FWS, in a phone interview. “We have to be able to be more predictive, to be able to look into the future to how climate change is affecting species like the grizzly bear, polar bear, or coho salmon.”

Gazing into the future is the key. Last month, Congress provided $25 million in fresh funding for the cooperatives, each of which will have a core staff of scientists to create models of probable regional climate impacts and provide scientific analysis for future wildlife management plans.

“The LCCs are integral to climate adaptation efforts,” according to an internal agency draft “function and form” document. Even so, they will not be “climate-centric,” but will “provide scientific support for conservation actions addressing a variety of broad-scale challenges, including water scarcity, species invasion, wildlife disease, as well as changing climate.