Climate change is a real, complex and widespread challenge that calls for a "new era of collaborative conservation." That's the message of a new strategic plan for dealing with the effects of global warming, released last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The blueprint is part of the U.S. Department of Interior's overarching framework for climate change response, established by a September 2009 order from Sec. Ken Salazar.

The plan highlights the FWS's goal to be carbon neutral by 2020, but the bulk of it is focused on describing a new approach to plant and animal species protection and management. Central to this new brand of conservation is the notion that multiple entities—governmental and nongovernmental groups at the local, state, federal and international levels—must work together to preserve at-risk plant and animal species and their habitats. Further, this collaboration needs to transcend traditional borders and jurisdictional boundaries as well as be effective at the level of the landscape—the entire habitat range of a species or set of species.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service, and the conservation community in general, has not encountered anything like this before, where you have so many widespread effects that are occurring," says David Eisenhauer, an FWS public affairs officer. The new plan "for the first time attempts to provide some ways we can work with partners at a much larger scale than we've been used to in the past," he says.

Landscape conservation cooperatives
Specifically, the strategy lays groundwork for the formation of regional organizations called Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs). These would be formal partnerships involving federal and state agencies, tribes, nongovernmental organizations, universities and other parties concerned with conservation. Such cooperatives would share knowledge and scientific resources in order to respond to landscape-level climate change repercussions like habitat fragmentation, genetic isolation, the spread of invasive species and water scarcity.

Models of this type of coordination already exist: The FWS is involved in multiple joint ventures aimed at migratory bird species conservation, including a project covering more than eight million hectares in the lower Mississippi River Valley and another that spans the U.S.–Canada border. These arrangements have proved effective at maintaining habitats and migration routes, says Daniel Ashe, the FWS's deputy director for policy and former science advisor to the director. Similar networks will be developed across the country. "If we are going to ask our people to effectively respond to a changing climate, we have to begin with building the capacity to allow them to do that," Ashe says, "We don't have that capacity now."

Contributing to that capacity will be a nationwide Fish and Wildlife Climate Adaptation Strategy, meant to provide a standard for administering these conservation partnerships. And a newly created National Biological Inventory and Monitoring Partnership will be tasked with collecting and analyzing the empirical data needed to track the effects of climate change on specific species, along with identifying measures of success and failure. "As we begin to build that monitoring capacity, we'll put inventory specialists in each of the LCCs," Ashe says.

A new scientific mindset

Besides increased collaboration, the new plan also calls for the FWS to transition to a more predictive mindset. Because the climate is changing, a greater emphasis will be placed on preparing for future scenarios, uncertain as they may be. "We can no longer count on the past as a reliable analogue for the future," Ashe says, "So we're asking our people to become much more comfortable with model-based predictions."

For example, consider again the case of migratory birds. The service, in addition to protecting present habitats and migration routes, must attempt to determine how changes in climate may force birds to alter where they spend the winter, where they breed in the spring, and how they travel between the two locations. In similar cases for other plants and animals "we'll need to figure all those things out, and see what other habitats we need to conserve and maintain," says FWS national climate change policy advisor Mark Shaffer. Key to this process will be to downsize global and continental climate models so they are useful on regional and landscape scales—no small endeavor in itself.

Theory and practice

If the new strategy is to accomplish its goals, it will depend significantly on assistance from nongovernmental conservation organizations. Robert Bendick, director of U.S. Government relations for the Nature Conservancy, says his organization is on board; he applauded the new plan for its clarity. "At a time when there's a lot of indecision about climate—questions about who should do what, what's real and what's not real—the Fish and Wildlife Service is saying, 'This is real and we're not going to wait,'" he says, "The stakes are too high."

Still, Bendick cautioned that although the vision is encouraging, it remains to be seen how it effective it will be in practice. Large collaborations like this have historically proved difficult to execute, he says, adding that the "record of collaboration across political and agency boundaries, and across levels of government, isn't very good."

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said that whereas it is encouraging to see the service taking action, the plan is deficient in crucial specifics. He agrees that high-level planning is a step in the right direction, but says the FWS is failing to address urgent situations that need action immediately. "This is not decision-making," he says. "It's good to have as many people as possible thinking about long-term solutions, but you also need to recognize that the laws already exist, the Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to take action, and we need actions right now."

Actually, the bulk of the necessary work lies in the future, Shaffer says. The FWS needs to gain a better handle on the overall situation, empirically speaking, before it can be in a position to set more specific priorities, he notes. "There are an awful lot of species native to the United States, so we've got a lot of homework to do."