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Resilient Habitats and the Effects of Warming on Wild Places
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by Vicky Hoover | 2007

We are learning that over a million species worldwide are at risk due to climate change, and protecting large wild places and linked corridors is one of the best strategies to provide for their survival.

Climate change, or global warming, gives us new reasons to protect wild places.  Conservation biologists have told us for decades that we need to preserve large wild core areas and to link them together with corridors to protect wildlife from the impacts of human development.  Now we are learning that over a million species worldwide are at risk due to climate change, and protecting large wild places and linked corridors is one of the best strategies to provide for their survival.  This gives us another special focus for our work to protect wild lands, a focus that is highly likely to engage broader public attention and interest.

Why climate change demands more protected habitat

Climate change stresses wildlife through alterations to its habitat. As weather warms, forests dry up and are more susceptible to insect infestations and fire; snowpack is reduced and runoff happens earlier; rivers, lakes and marine environments heat up; grasslands become drier; coral bleaches and dies; and ecosytems start to collapse and shift.  Critters (and plants!) may need to move afield, most often northward or to a higher elevation in search of cooler habitats. While the ability to move might work for lower elevation species, some alpine species, like the pica and ptarmigan, cannot escape by moving higher. In the American West, extensive roadless areas on public lands provide the best habitat and potential wildlife movement corridors—especially when combined with existing wilderness and park areas.  When roadless areas are joined together into a connected continental network of large core protected areas and corridors between them, they really help wildlife adapt to changing climates.

 As noted above, habitat may also be lost to fires, which are expected to increase as weather becomes warmer and drier and insect infestations spread to higher elevations.  Roadless lands can make it easier for wildlife to relocate if fires shrink habitat.  Furthermore, in roadless areas, human-caused fires may be less likely to start. Already, fires are a big issue throughout the West.  The U.S. Forest Service has become the U.S. Fire Service, and fire fighting is now its largest budget item.  Consider, for example,  this summer’s fires in Nevada.  According to a July 21, 2007 press release by the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the 2006 and 2007 wildland fires in Nevada are “an environmental disaster.  We are losing habitat year after year, with no end in sight.”

Fire intervals in Nevada are decreasing, the release continues.  In lower elevation sagebrush habitat, historic 200-or-more year intervals have decreased to about 10 to 20 years. This decrease favors non-native species like flammable cheatgrass and doesn’t let slower-growing sagebrush get established.  Such habitat conversion threatens sage-dependent species such as sage grouse, sage thrasher, vesper sparrow, and pygmy rabbit; deer are losing critical winter range.

The idea of working for wildlife corridors is catching on around the world.  According to a 7/9/07 Reuters news release, Australia plans to establish a continent-spanning wildlife corridor “to allow animals and plants to flee the effects of global warming.”  The 1740-mile “spine” will link Australia’s southern snow-covered Alps with the tropical north.  

     Of course, global climate change is far from the only cause of stress to wildlife habitat. “We need to continue our vigilance against off-road vehicle incursions, overgrazing, poisoning of water from mining or toxic herbicides, timber clear cutting, and other damaging human activities everywhere,” says Jerry Sutherland, of the Sierra Club national Conservation Governance Committee. “Mitigating or eliminating these stresses will make it easier for species to adapt to the new stress from climate change and remain resilient.”

Sierra Club focus on “Cool Habitats”

As the Sierra Club strives to curb global warming and move to clean energy solutions, wilderness activists also emphasize the importance of our traditional efforts to preserve our nation’s threatened wild lands.

To help connect our wild lands advocacy with the new global warming campaign, Sierra Club Associate Executive Director Bruce Hamilton has helped prepare a major new “Resilient Habitats” objective that will frame protection of wild places and wildlife habitats in terms of need to combat changes brought about by global warming. 

The Sierra Club Resilient Habitats initiative emphasizes BIG protected areas, ecosystem-scale megacorridors such as the “Yellowstone to Yukon” initiative.  However, smaller-scale land preservation designations can be part of a bigger scheme if they are strategically located to connect to other protected areas. Thus, in wilderness work we should give highest priority to setting aside those wild places that can be linked to others.

 As Bruce puts it, we will “build on the existing system of U.S. protected areas (wilderness, parks, wildlife refuges etc.) to establish an ecologically-based network of protected areas, corridors, and buffer zones spanning federal, state, and private lands and waters that will preserve the full range of biodiversity from the adverse impacts of climate change.”

A key concept to promote is ecosystem resilience – the ability of species and ecosystems to adapt to and withstand climate change.  We make our natural ecosystems more resilient by having them connected by biological corridors to allow the interchange of genetic material.

How will the new campaign differ from our past work?  Bruce points out, “Historically we’ve protected wild places by defending the Endangered Species Act, passing new wilderness and parks bills, cutting the budget for logging, blocking oil and gas and coal leasing etc.  These are all still important.  But this proposal suggests putting a Climate Recovery Campaign frame on our overall lands protection agenda to unify it and make sure that the solutions we advocate not only protect roadless areas, endangered species, and scenic areas, but also will enable ecosystems and the full range of biodiversity to survive climate change.  In doing this we are insuring the survival of our 100-year investment in protecting the earth’s wild places.”   

 

 

> 2007 Table of Contents

   
   

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