Wildlife Conservation in a Changing Climate

Jedediah F. Brodie, Eric S. Post, and Daniel F. Doak / University Of Chicago Press / 416 pages

As more and more people accept the reality that our climate is changing due to human activities, the future effects of a changing climate are being discussed and debated. Will modified rainfall and drought patterns affect food production and prices? Will the severity of storms increase, and how will the insurance industry respond? How will new CO2 emission regulations impact economies and pocketbooks? What will be the social and environmental costs associated with rising sea levels?

In this discussion, it would be easy to lose sight of pikas, wildebeest, Arctic shorebirds, green sea turtles, and a vast number of other wildlife species. Wild animals just take care of themselves, right? Always have, and always will. Except, the rapidity of climatic changes is a new phenomenon, and these changes may have devastating impacts on biodiversity. These issues are laid out in a new scholarly book titled Wildlife Conservation in a Changing Climate, edited by Jedediah Brody, Eric Post, and Daniel Doak.

How will wildlife be affected? Obviously, precipitation and temperature affect plant distribution and abundance, and wildlife populations are intimately linked to the products of photosynthesis. Climate modelers tell us that the impacts of climate change include declines in ice and snow cover, increases in flooding, an increase in drought severity, modified fire regimes, and a rising sea level, just to name a few of the direct effects on wildlife. But there are other insidious factors at work here. Stressed or modified ecosystems will be vulnerable to new or expanded invasions by exotic species. Parasites and diseases like avian malaria may expand their distribution, further impacting populations of sensitive and threatened species. Warmer nesting beaches may affect the worldwide sex ratio of sea turtles. Pikas may continue shifting their distribution uphill until they simply run out of hill.

What I found of particular interest in this volume was the extended discussion about what to do about these impacts. Biologists monitoring wildebeest migration routes aren’t going to be dictating industrial and vehicular CO2 emission standards. So the debate is quite frank. Should humans assist species in colonizing new habitats? Can managers develop corridors to connect shrinking habitats?  Will this alter the role of hunting as a management tool to manipulate populations? I am fearful that consortiums of conservation biologists will battle each other over management strategies favorable to “their” species of concern. However it plays out, conservation actions and priorities in the near future may be changing in a climate-shifting world.

Disturbingly, the authors note, “The time lag between emissions and atmospheric response ensures that our past discharges have not yet caught up with us; even if we were to stop emitting fossil fuels tomorrow, climatic warming would continue.” The genie is out of the bottle, and we need to be ready to be creative and persistent in our approach to this biodiversity apocalypse.

—Dr. Robert Schmidt.
Dr. Schmidt is on the faculty in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, and is a member of AWI’s Scientific Committee.