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Impossible to Conserve Nature as Is, Thanks to Climate Change

A U.S. government-backed guide for land managers says global warming requires a fundamental shift in conservation
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Climate-change-related conservation decisions have already proved contentious.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon in 1903, he famously admonished the attending crowd to avoid meddling with the landscape. "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it," he said. True to Roosevelt's message, America's conservationists have since focused on maintaining the status quo, or at least restoring ecosystems to their natural state.

But due to the growing impacts of climate change, this can no longer continue, according to a new guide for land managers backed by multiple state and federal agencies.

"Addressing the growing threats brought about or accentuated by rapid climate change requires a fundamental shift in the practice of natural resource management in conservation," states the document, released yesterday by the National Wildlife Federation in partnership with the National Park Service, U.S. EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and several other federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

"While managers traditionally have looked to the past for inspiration, increasingly we will be faced with future conditions that may have no historical analogs," it states.

The guide is intended to demystify climate adaptation for habitat and wildlife managers. It provides a step-by-step process evaluating how ecosystems may be vulnerable to climate change and how conservation goals might be altered for the best possible outcome.

'No longer possible' to maintain nature's status quo
But the guide's authors stress the "best possible outcome" may mean ecosystems that look very different from how they did in the past.

"It is going to be a very big shift over the coming decades," said Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation's director for climate change adaptation, who helped edit the guide.

"There's going to be places where we're going to try to do our utmost to keep it the way it is," Stein said, "... but that's not going to be possible indefinitely; in fact in some places and for some things, it's not possible even now."

Climate-change-related conservation decisions have already proved contentious.

Scientists sharply disagree about whether to introduce new wolves to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Michigan to breed with the current pack, which is inbred and in decline. Proponents of a "genetic rescue" claim that ice bridges to the mainland are forming less frequently as the planet warms, meaning the wolves can't breed with outside populations. Others say the decline would have happened even without climate change (ClimateWire, Dec. 3, 2013).

As with the case of Isle Royale, getting all stakeholders on board with future conservation decisions isn't going to be easy, Stein said.

"If there's one thing we've learned in the conservation community, it's that you need that broad collaboration," he said. "That's going to be especially tough as we increasingly are called on to make hard choices."

Aiming at a moving target
But according to T. Douglas Beard Jr., chief of USGS's National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, it is important for land managers to dive into climate change adaptation, even though future impacts aren't entirely predictable.

"We actually learn by doing—you put something in place, and then you evaluate when you're getting there," said Beard, who also contributed to the guide. "That's critical."

The guide encourages more agile management techniques that constantly take climate change into account, as well as strategies that can change depending on the outcome.

For example, land managers can restore coastal habitats to deal with saltwater intrusion while simultaneously providing migration corridors if those habitats become inundated due to sea-level rise—this effort is currently underway at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.

Conserving a changing landscape may sound like a tall order, but Beard said he believes that, based on efforts he has witnessed over the past five years, America's land managers are up to the task.

"Maybe it's because they are actually now starting to see the real-life implications of climate change," Beard said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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