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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.

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Using advanced computer models, LCC scientists will report how global warming could change regional ecosystems decades from now, allowing researchers to calculate whether a recovery plan in a species’ home range makes sense.

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That, in turn, might make it possible to determine if a wildlife corridor, a way for animals to migrate past highways and cities to cooler northern climes, is possible. Or whether more drastic measures – such as translocating a species (capturing and moving it) – are necessary.

Scott Loarie’s pioneering work points to a decline of up to 59 percent in pika populations across the western US if greenhouse-gas emissions reach the higher end of the scale predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change. Even under the most optimistic IPCC scenarios, 15 percent of pikas would disappear. Higher levels of decline could bring calls for more radical adaptive techniques.

Options for the pika, which requires temperatures below 80 degrees F., could include spending more time underground to avoid the heat. But that may mean pikas couldn’t graze sufficiently to get fat enough to survive the winter. says Dr. Loarie, a researcher with the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University in California.

However, “if policymakers create larger areas that lessen sheep grazing and logging at higher altitudes, that management might help their chances a lot,” Loarie says.

More radical measures, such as translocating pikas, are hotly debated. “Translocation of the pika brings up all kinds of ethical questions, mainly the issue of native versus invasive species,” he says.

“If you take a climate refugee and bring it to another range, does it become an exotic species? It opens a huge can of worms,” he says. “Do we know enough to engineer things to get the outcome we want or [do we] risk making things worse?”

What’s become clear is that saving wildlife species threatened by climate change requires global cooperation, which presents challenges to scientists and negotiators.

Last month, for example, the FWS identified more than 200,000 square miles as critical habitat for the endangered polar bear. “We’ve listed the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act here in the US, but we can’t begin to conserve them just within our own borders,” Mr. Ashe says. “We are having to reach out to nine countries that manage them to put together an adaptation strategy.”

Climate impacts can appear suddenly, even for species that had been recovering well. The grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park are an example. Their numbers had been rebounding, but now climate change-linked beetle infestations and disease have killed 60 percent of the white bark pine in Yellowstone – and much of what’s left is expected to be dead in five to seven years.

White bark pine nuts are a critical food that helps grizzlies get fat enough to overwinter. With the white bark pine gone, some 300 to 400 grizzlies need to spread out to other areas to find food. Bears are already turning to elk as a food source and getting shot by frightened elk hunters as a result.