A century of progress in recovering North America's iconic species from overhunting and habitat destruction could be undone over the next half-century by the adverse effects of climate change, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
In a report published yesterday, the nonprofit that represents wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists and hunters warned that the effects of climate change -- higher temperatures, more prolonged and severe droughts, peak rainfall events, and flooding -- and their impacts on habitat "are having far-reaching consequences for big game and for sportsmen and women."
The report, based on reviews of academic studies examining climate stressors on a range of wildlife, focused on seven species that are at most immediate risk: moose, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and black bear.
While some of the species, such as moose, are already seeing rapid declines across parts of their range in the United States, many others are on the cusp of decline as their traditional habitats become ravaged by drought, fire, flood and disease outbreaks.
"This is very real, and it's happening right now," said Doug Inkley, an NWF senior scientist and senior author of the report, titled "Nowhere to Run: Big Game Wildlife in a Warming World."
The NWF report notes that climate change could also effectively undermine a multibillion-dollar economy built around hunting and fishing, eco-tourism, and other forms of outdoor recreation. Humans who spend time in the backcountry will also be vulnerable to climate change as conditions make outdoor recreation more uncomfortable or unsafe.
"Trekking into the outdoors is popular, whether to hunt, watch big game, camp or hike. As climate change progresses, these activities will expose outdoor adventurers to an increased risk of Lyme disease. Its carrier, the deer tick, is expected to survive warming winters in greater numbers and to increase its range by more than half," states the 33-page report.
Animal behavior is changing
More immediately, the report finds, climate change is redefining the way animals behave. Seasonal migrations of elk and pronghorn that used to happen like clockwork in the West are increasingly varied, leading to shifting hunting and viewing seasons. Shifting, too, are hibernation seasons for species like the black bear, leading to greater incidence of bear encounters with humans, NWF said.
Even white-tailed deer, ubiquitous across much of the lower 48 states, are facing new threats under shifting climate regimes as their habitat areas grow warmer, improving conditions for disease-carrying insects and parasites. Among other things, hemorrhagic disease, transmitted by virus-carrying insects, is expected to become an even greater killer of white-tail populations as milder winters allow disease to spread more easily, according to NWF.
Meanwhile, on the Colorado Plateau, mule deer -- a cousin of white-tailed deer -- have been gradually succumbing to more hostile conditions, which NWF attributes to "two decades of severe drought [that] transformed the composition and structure of the plant community, which in turn was detrimental to mule deer."
And in extreme cold climates like northern Minnesota and Maine, heat-averse moose are becoming stressed by warmer summers and shorter, milder winters, factors that scientists believe are contributing to precipitous declines in places like northeast Minnesota. At the same time, "heavy winter tick infestations leave moose weakened from blood loss, in poor health, and with greater vulnerability to disease," NWF said.
Robert Brown, former dean of North Carolina State University's College of Natural Resources and former president of the Wildlife Society, said it is increasingly clear "there will be winners and losers" in the wildlife community as the climate changes, and some species may fare well under shifting habitat conditions.
"As scientists, we have to admit we don't know what will happen, how fast it will occur or where it will happen," Brown said. "But our research shows that the world is warming, that it is caused by humans, and it will affect wildlife populations."
Brown noted that while curbing greenhouse gas emissions is the most important long-term strategy for reducing climate impacts on wildlife, "in the short term we must also take action to help big game survive the climate changes we're already seeing. We can do this by promoting climate-smart approaches to conservation and managing big game populations with a changing climate in mind."
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.
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