Climate a huge factor in endangered species managment

New research helps narrow range of outcomes for resource managers

Dolphins off the coast of Florida have been exposed to more mercury than captive dolphins fed a controlled diet. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

New research shows how global warming may affect aquatic species. bberwyn photo.

Staff report

FRISCO — The ecological playing field has changed dramatically since the Endangered Species Act was passed 40 years ago. Along with continued environmental threats like pollution and habitat loss, global warming has emerged as a huge factor in the survival of numerous species.

Resource managers and scientists are still grappling with how warmer temperatures will affect ecosystems, but the range of possible outcomes is starting to become more clear. This month, federal fisheries scientists published a series of papers outlining several scenarios for the coming decades, including case studies for species ranging from chinook salmon to steelhead to 82 different types of coral.

The research, published in Conservation Biology, includes input from University of Washington climate scientist Amy Snover, director of the UW-based Climate Impacts Group.

“When you look at projections for future climate change, there’s a big range of possible futures. And decision makers or biologists assessing impacts on a particular species want to know what’s the most likely future … they don’t want to use this huge range of uncertainty,” Snover said.

Snover is lead author of a paper on choosing and using climate-change scenarios to inform policy for endangered marine species.

“We tried to distill what climate scientists know in a way that would be useful for conservation biologists,” Snover said.

Choice of scenario will depend on the species. A salmon that moves between mountain streams and the open ocean, for example, is different from an animal that scurries along a sandy beach or that clings to a rock at the bottom of the ocean.

“People who are trying to make decisions that account for climate change are often bewildered or overwhelmed by the large number of scenarios that are available, and think in many cases that they’re too uncertain to be used,” Snover said. “We’re establishing a strategy for choosing from this vast array of scenarios, and strategies that are defensible in litigious situations like the (Endangered Species Act).”

The paper’s broad-based approach could also apply to land animals, she said.

The paper also includes a “reality check” table to counter some common misperceptions about climate models – for example, that they differ too much to predict any useful trends, or that their uncertainty could be reduced by somehow finding the best model to use.

Trends that are certain to affect marine species, Snover said, include increasing ocean acidification, warmer water temperatures and changes in level and timing of stream flows.

“Despite the significant uncertainty that remains about potential future climates, we know enough to assess impacts and incorporate that information into conservation decisions,” Snover said.

Co-authors on the paper are Nathan Mantua, a former UW scientist now at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz, Calif.; Jeremy Littell, a former UW scientist now at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Climate Science Center in Anchorage; Michael Alexander at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.; Michelle McClure at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle; and Janet Nye at Stony Brook University. The research was partially supported by NOAA through the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

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