Hot and Bothered: Wildlife and Global Warming

Climate change isn't just melting glaciers--it's messing with wildlife everywhere
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Climate change isn't just melting glaciers--it's messing with wildlife everywhere

The wood warbler migrates 60 miles farther north than it did two decades ago. The red fox is the newest resident of the Arctic. And the sachem skipper butterfly has moved 400-plus miles, from California to Washington.

Why the collective change of address? Rising temperatures.

That assertion might not sound like news, but it's backed up with unprecedented authority in an important new report from The Wildlife Society. The 26-page document, titled Global Climate Change and Wildlife in North America, spells out in wonkish detail how changing weather conditions will likely impact the continent's plants and animals over the next century. The bottom line: Climate change isn't just thawing glaciers in the far North, it's changing the wilderness areas where we do most of our hiking.

"Many of the places we've invested decades of work in conserving for wildlife will likely cease to exist as we know them," says wildlife ecologist Douglas Inkley, Ph.D., chair of the report's review committee. Treeline in the Rockies, for example, is expected to rise, which will kill off populations of alpine animals that can't migrate, like the pika.

The study's most startling forecast predicts that entire habitats and wildlife groups will undergo a massive shift northward. In the Southeast, pine and hardwood forests will expand north; the conifer forests of New England and much of the Northeast will slowly morph into deciduous forest; and Canada's boreal forests will creep into Alaska's tundra. As these ecosystems transform, animals must either adapt or follow their food and shelter poleward. Changes to migration routes, animal size, mating habits, and blooming cycles are also anticipated--or have already begun.

While these prognoses are alarming, Inkley stresses that the impact of climate change on wildlife will be both positive and negative, and that it will vary greatly from species to species and region to region. The fate of bears, wolves, and other large mammals, he says, is simply unknown.

The study's conclusions may have an immediate impact on how protected areas are run. Inkley

believes--or hopes--that the groundbreaking report will spur park and wildlife managers to consider the increasingly cold, hard facts about global warming as they approach their work. So far, only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey have officially listed climate change as a future challenge in conservation.