How climate-change-related storms and fires are devastating wildlife and what we can do about it
Summer 2021 Feature Opener

By Wendee Nicole

The gigantic wall of flame engulfed massive pine and fir trees “as if they were twigs in a bonfire,” wrote Peter Hess in Climate Abandoned. He described billowing clouds of smoke 10,000 feet high—so thick they blotted out the sun and turned day into night—and a sound “like the whine of a jet engine at full throttle superimposed on the thunder of Niagara Falls.” These details were seared into Hess’s memory by the Valley Fire that raged through west-central California in 2015, consuming his family home, charring 7 million trees and killing four people, hundreds of pets and countless wild animals left with nowhere to run by a lack of habitat connectivity. The wildfires also led to massive migratory bird mortality, with hundreds of swallows, warblers, pewees and flycatchers later found dead, likely exhausted from trying to escape the blazes or inhaling toxic fumes.

In Bambi, the beloved young deer and his forest friends escaped the falling trees and raining embers of a wildfire by following patches of forest along a river. In today’s reality, sprawling cities, roads and development mean that wild creatures often lack an escape route or must try to make their way through increasingly disconnected habitat. This is true not only during forest blazes but also during other extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, including floods, hurricanes and droughts. They impact wildlife from forest-dwelling mammals to raptors and cold-water fish to migratory birds and sedentary mussels. “In the face of climate change, we really need to protect significant amounts of habitat,” says Lauren McCain, a Defenders senior policy analyst, “and not just isolated areas but also habitat connectivity corridors so species are able to travel to safe spaces.”

Fueled by Fire

Western wildfires have burned more and more acreage every year since the 1980s, with a serious uptick starting around 2000. Almost every summer, massive fires threaten house and habitat alike, dominating the news. But last year exceeded all others. More than 10 million acres from California to Washington went up in smoke—stoked in large part by climate-change-induced impacts like extra-dry vegetation and low precipitation.

“Last fire season astonished people because of its intensity,” says Pete Nelson, Defenders of Wildlife’s director of federal lands conservation. And it will occur again, perhaps this year, perhaps next, until policymakers and land managers accept that climate change is here and enact policies that incorporate measures to help wildlife and habitats build resilience, acclimate and survive in a changing climate.

“Fire has now jumped into the top tier of stressors for northern spotted owls,” says Nelson. The owls have lost ground since their 1990 listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), partly to invasive barred owls—which are better able to adapt to degraded habitat—but also to fires and climate change. Northern spotted owls require old-growth forest which is itself endangered. “Not much old-growth is left, so the owls really don’t have anywhere to go when severe fire strikes those forests,” says Nelson.

Old growth isn’t just critical to these owls and other forest-dwellers. “Those forests are really important to counteracting the effects of climate change,” says U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist David Wiens. “Big, old, tall trees and old-growth forests buffer the effects of a warming climate because they create their own microclimates and help retain moisture.”

A lot of the historical fires—which spotted owls evolved alongside—were mixed-severity or low-severity fires that benefit the species by creating mosaics of vegetation regrowth, including smaller sections of severely burned fires with standing snags. “What we’re seeing now is very different,” adds Wiens. 

Today’s intense megafires are the result of lower-than-normal precipitation, drier-than-usual vegetation, longer-than-typical fire seasons and policies limiting prescribed burns that have led to an excess of underbrush to feed more high-severity fires. While this “fuel” buildup throughout forests has been well known for decades, the immediacy of climate change has ratcheted up the importance of finding solutions. 

“There’s a lot of resistance to prescribed burning because of air quality issues, concerns about fires getting out of control and the perception all fire is ‘bad,’” says McCain. She emphasizes that we must understand that wildfire is essential for many ecosystems and that safely restoring fire where it’s historically been suppressed can benefit wildlife and humans. “Carefully planned forest thinning, based on science, along with prescribed fire can improve ecological conditions and reduce how often unnaturally large wildfires occur,” she adds.  

Many Native American tribes traditionally promoted ecosystem health with prescribed burns. “For hundreds of years, we’ve used fire to help fulfill our responsibility to the animals and plants,” explains Bill Tripp, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe in northern California. Using traditional ecological knowledge to manage fire-adapted landscapes, tribes like the Karuk worked with nature’s boom-and-bust cycles to benefit people as well as animals by reducing the density of underbrush. But this has been limited since Western colonization. 

“Fire suppression was essentially a form of colonialism when the government made it illegal for tribes to burn their land, but cultural burning programs are a huge part of the solution,” explains Nelson. 

With a warming climate, policy change can’t come soon enough. Traditional Karuk lands were devastated by 2020 fires. “The Slater Fire grew over 100,000 acres in the first day, burned down 200 houses and killed two people,” says Tripp. To add insult to injury, when dozens of firefighters trample sacred land to extinguish mega-fires, it destroys sensitive ecosystems on traditional Native lands, from bulldozers ripping off topsoil to severing ancient mycorrhizal fungal connections among trees. “But it’s a wildfire situation, so you’re exempt from rules,” says Tripp.

There’s hope that the Biden administration, with its first Native American Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, may change these policies.

Monarchs, Mega-Storms and Migratory Birds

Climate change is having harmful effects on wild creatures far beyond wildfires in the West. In the oyamel or sacred fir forests of central Mexico, a warming climate is limiting the altitude at which fir trees can grow, threatening one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring sights: millions of monarch butterflies roosting in massive clusters so dense that the branches sag under their weight.

When, in 1999, biologist Miramanni Mishkin first visited Mexico’s El Rosario sanctuary—a World Heritage Site containing most of the winter habitat for the eastern monarch population, she described hearing what at first sounded like a babbling brook. In reality, it was the mind-blowing sound of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of “cascading” monarchs dropping off the trees in spontaneous bursts of flight. In 2020, she says, monarch numbers showed a frightening decline—one at the threshold of predicted population collapse.

Climate change is also affecting the monarch’s migratory pathway. “2020 showed a shift in migratory patterns north and east in the U.S. and Canada because of drought,” says Mishkin, who studied monarchs during her doctoral research. Like birds, monarchs rely on healthy and available habitat along their migration routes to forage and rest. When these habitats get hit by extreme drought—or an atypical storm during migration—it can increase stress on already vulnerable populations, threatening to wipe out whole populations or even species.

Climate change also means spring arrives earlier in many places. This raises the risk of a timing mismatch between migratory birds’ journeys north and food availability. “In a perfect scenario, birds arrive in a given location when food is plentiful—this might be on the breeding grounds or en route during migration,” says Kyle Horton, an assistant professor at Colorado State University, who used satellite imagery to analyze landscape-level changes in North American bird migration. If birds arrive “on time” at their breeding grounds but the caterpillars they rely on have already emerged, they might not have an alternative to feed themselves or their young.”

“Many bird species are traveling long distances, potentially originating from as far south as Argentina. These species use changes in day length, which has been an evolutionarily stable cue,” explains Horton. “Long distance migrants are often most susceptible to a mismatch. A bird in Brazil doesn’t know what’s going on in Kansas or New York.”

Climate change is also increasing hurricane intensity and frequency. Warmer air holds more moisture longer—until it descends torrentially. Climate change has slowed down the jet stream, an undulating river of wind high in the atmosphere influenced by temperatures in the Arctic—which is warming faster than the rest of the planet. This may create cycles of increased drought and is already causing hurricanes to last longer. We know the toll this takes on human lives and communities. The results can also be disastrous for wildlife, especially for small, isolated wildlife populations with nowhere to go. For example, Hurricane Harvey in 2017 killed 80 percent of the 42 nonmigratory and endangered Attwater’s prairie-chickens left in the wild.

Sometimes, storms hit during nesting season. Hurricane Irma followed Harvey in 2017 and destroyed all the nests of the endangered Everglades snail kite. “There was a drought in the beginning of the year and the snail kites got a late start in nesting,” says University of Florida wildlife ecology professor Robert Fletcher. Irma came through in late September and wiped those nests out. Fortunately, they recovered the next season, but storms can prove precarious for any small, imperiled population. 

Hurricanes also bring coastal erosion and flooding, which is harmful for many aquatic species. “Flooding events from severe weather can be a triple whammy,” says Aimee Delach, a senior policy analyst for Defenders. High flow can dislodge species, like mussels, and wash small fish downstream. “You also get a lot of sediment in the water, which is really bad for a lot of species, and all the pollutants also get flushed downstream.” And, as climate change accelerates, sea level rise will continue to erode coastlines, increasing vulnerability for coastal wildlife, from the endangered Alabama beach mouse to coast-nesting seabirds and sea turtles. 

Conserving Land for a Livable Future

The good news is it’s still possible to plan for climate change in a way that conserves biodiversity and wildlife habitat. A promising initiative to save at least 30 percent of the world’s lands and seas by 2030—called 30x30—is gaining momentum around the globe, with more than 50 nations signaling their support. In one of President Biden’s first acts, his Executive Order on climate change included this ambitious goal for the U.S. A key part of the campaign is to conserve habitat that can serve as climate refugia and protect against biodiversity loss.

“Refugia are areas less affected by environmental changes than the surrounding landscape. They can provide protection for wildlife and plants from fire, storms, floods, higher temperatures, drought or pest outbreaks,” explains Ted Weber, Defenders’ climate adaptation policy analyst. Refugia can be connected by wildlife corridors—natural pathways that enable animals to migrate to more suitable habitat as the climate changes.

Scientists have been modeling and mapping out where species will likely shift and which habitats can be protected. “We’re looking for areas that are sheltered because of their topography or other features,” says Weber. “They may be north-facing slopes that don’t receive as much sun or deep valleys or coves that pool cold air. Also important are hydrological refugia, like wetlands, springs and groundwater-fed streams. Those areas are essential, especially in arid areas like the Southwest, for providing water for aquatic species and other animals that just need drinking water—and also for plants.”

Streams fed from deep subsurface aquifers are less susceptible to evaporation from the sun and have more constant flow and steadier temperatures, and can be excellent climate refugia, if protected. From mussels to trout, aquatic species are among the most imperiled, and are highly vulnerable to climate change because they’re limited as to where they can go. “Finding refugia for brook trout, one of our flagship cold-water fish in the eastern U.S., will also protect other species that require cold, clean water,” says Weber. 

Refugia are particularly crucial in desert ecosystems. Over the last two decades, the Southwest has experienced abnormally hot and dry temperatures. “Extreme drought and heat are really bad for desert tortoises as well as other desert animals,” says Delach. Listed as threatened under the ESA, they “are adapted to the hottest weather on planet, but they’re already at their physiological tolerance level.”

Defenders has worked hard over the past few years to develop a roadmap for scientists, conservationists and policymakers alike. The science-based report Getting to 30x30 analyzed the overlap among biodiversity, ecosystem carbon stores (places that capture and keep carbon out of the atmosphere) and existing protected areas around the U.S. “It was the first data-driven analysis of needs of 30 x 30 in the U.S.,” says Jacob Malcom, director of Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation. Carbon stores include old-growth forests, tundra, mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and salt marshes. Conserving them helps mitigate against the inevitable temperature climb to come.

Defenders followed up with a second report, a roadmap for states to advance 30x30 on a more regional basis that people can also use as an advocacy tool to encourage decision-makers to support state-level 30x30 programs. Depending on how state or federal programs evolve, private landowners could receive incentives to enter into conservation easements. “If you’re a landowner who has wildlife on their property, incentive programs that provide funding or legal benefits could make it easy to create conservation easements for biodiversity,” says Malcom.

Not only is 30x30 achievable, says Malcom, but it can protect ecosystems and wildlife throughout the U.S. and around the world, buffering against the inevitable effects of climate change. “This is something we need to do, but it’s important to recognize that this is something we can do,” he says. “And wildlife, their habitats and ultimately humanity are going to benefit.”

Wendee Nicole has written for Scientific American, Nature and Environmental Health Perspectives. She last wrote about wildlife corridors for the Spring issue of Defenders.

Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service

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