Plans for wildlife refuges show strengths and weaknesses for adapting to climate change
Indiana University study finds U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System management plans are ahead of their peers for adapting, but more needs to be done
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- As the effects of a changing climate become acute, organizations charged with overseeing refuge areas must take action to adapt. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains the National Wildlife Refuge System -- which constitutes the world’s largest system of protected lands and waters -- and its experience offers lessons for other public land managers.
According to an article by Robert Fischman and Vicky Meretsky of Indiana University and their students, the service may not always be adequately planning for an altered future. But best practices from several plans point the way for improvement.
For instance, existing plans that enlarge the conservation scope of refuges by promoting wildlife corridors show how conservation reserves can simultaneously improve habitat, reduce non-climate impacts and enhance resilience to climate change.
The article was published online today by BioScience and will appear in the November 2014 issue of the journal. Fischman is a professor and Harry T. Ice Faculty Fellow in the Maurer School of Law. Meretsky is a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
The authors undertook a study of 185 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comprehensive conservation plans published from 2005 to 2011 and evaluated their coverage of nine climate-change categories. Of the 185 plans, 115 mentioned at least one of the climate-change categories; of these, only 73 included prescriptions for adaptation. Moreover, the percentage of plans with climate-change prescriptions actually dropped in 2011, after steadily rising in each of the previous five years.
When prescriptions were present, they tended to be focused on monitoring that did not include specific criteria for action, rather than on monitoring with action criteria or on adaptive responses themselves. This can be a result of managers’ desire to maintain flexibility in the face of uncertainty; but the authors argue that “without specific criteria for evaluating success, refuge managers will have difficulty knowing whether and how to adjust activities on the basis of monitoring.”
Despite some shortcomings of existing comprehensive conservation plans, the authors see cause for hope in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2013 strategic plan, which calls for reviews that will bring together multiple refuge-level plans in order to produce wider-scale “landscape conservation designs.” These landscape conservation designs will allow reserve managers collectively to make a greater contribution to climate-change adaptation than they otherwise could. As the authors put it, “coordinating the actions of a disparate collection of reserves so that they achieve more together than each can independently is, after all, the whole point of having a conservation system.”
The research is significant because, despite a plenitude of general advice for land managers facing climate change, few studies have examined what might be practical for conservation reserves. The plans for national wildlife refuges show that it is possible to incorporate many ideas into practice. But wider use of emerging decision-support tools and regional-level coordination could help managers better prepare for coming landscape-scale changes.
The article grew out of a School of Public and Environmental Affairs class that Fischman and Meretsky co-taught in the spring of 2012. Students in the graduate-level capstone class took on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a client and provided information and analysis of the refuge plans it had approved over the past seven years. Fishman and Meretsky’s co-authors are students from the class who focused on climate change issues.
BioScience, published monthly by Oxford Journals, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. BioScience is a forum for integrating the life sciences that publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles. The journal has been published since 1964. The American Institute of Biological Sciences is a meta-level organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents nearly 160 member societies and organizations.
For a copy of the paper, reporters may contact James Verdier with the American Institute of Biological Sciences: 703-674-2500, ext. 245, or email@example.com.
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