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Climate Change and Conservation — A Fish and a Marsh
Noah Matson — Vice President for Landscape Conservation and Climate Adaptation, Defenders of Wildlife

Climate change is upending conservation. To illustrate, I will tell a story about a fish and a marsh. The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is a unique wildlife refuge—established as much to catalyze conservation throughout the Connecticut River watershed as to protect land. One of the Refuge’s establishing purposes was to restore imperiled Atlantic salmon to the river where they once swam.

There are many challenges with this conservation objective, but perhaps the biggest today is climate change. The Connecticut River is in the southern end of the historic range of Atlantic salmon, and this mighty river will become increasingly inhospitable for this cold water fish. The US Fish and Wildlife Service needs to evaluate its basic conservation purposes for this refuge in light of climate change.

“...no single individual, organization, or agency can practice conservation alone, and we need to work collectively, across large landscapes, in order to address extreme weather events, larger and more intense wild fires, and species on the move.”Further down the eastern seaboard, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland was created in 1933 to protect marshes important to migrating waterfowl and other species. Since establishment, a third of the refuge’s marshland areas have become open water as a result of a combination of influences, including the highly-erosive habits of the invading nutria (a wetland rodent) population; subsidence of the land, and sea level rise. In its now decade-old management plan, the refuge set out to restore the marsh to its historic conditions—a bold, expensive, and perhaps impossible task in light of the rising waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

But now the Fish and Wildlife Service is working with partners to strategically think through its conservation options given both the experienced and projected impacts of climate change. The refuge is beginning to look at not where the marshes used to be, but where they might be going to make sure the refuge continues to provide this important habitat type.

Five to ten years ago, in places like these we often saw managers wrestling with how to deal with the complex impacts of climate change on their own, and often within the context of their own boundaries and jurisdictions. Today that is changing.

Last year, the Obama administration released the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.1 This unprecedented strategy is the product of more than 20 federal and state agencies and tribal organizations making it the first national level intergovernmental climate adaptation plan. It provides a foundation for tackling the complex, large-scale issues of climate change. It recognizes that no single individual, organization, or agency can practice conservation alone, and that we need to work collectively, across large landscapes, in order to address extreme weather events, larger and more intense wild fires, and species on the move.

There are now increasing science and technical resources available for wildlife and land managers to tackle climate change. The USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center and its associated regional climate science centers are now a $25 million a year venture providing applied adaptation-related science. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,USDA, and other federal and state programs have similar science- driven entities relevant to land and resource management.

The foundation has been laid for a more comprehensive and effective response to conservation in an era of climate change. It has taken over a century to build the conservation movement and institutions we have today, and it will take time to adjust to the new reality of an ever-changing climate. We can and we must adapt the way we do conservation if we are to succeed in passing along this world’s incredible biodiversity to the next generation.

Notes:
1 National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Partnership. 2012. National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Council on Environmental Quality, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and US Fish and Wildlife Service. http://www.wildlifeadaptationstrategy.gov/
 
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