Climate change and the future of Maine’s wildlife
Today you’re hearing from Bob Houston, a biologist and GIS specialist in our Gulf of Maine Coastal Program. He’s one of the authors of the report, Climate Change and Biodiversity in Maine, released today. The report identifies 168 vulnerable species of fish, plants, birds and other wildlife that could experience large range shifts and population declines in Maine as a result of climate change by 2100.
What will happen to the animals, plants and habitats for which we work so hard to protect? Will their environment change so much in the coming century that they will face hardships they can’t tolerate?
These and other questions were on my mind as I sat at a table with other scientists to discuss the future of ducks, seabirds, shorebirds and other bird species.
I have been very lucky to be a part of Maine’s Beginning with Habitat team from its early beginnings. The partnership, which includes state and local agencies and non-government organizations, was formed to share important information about plant and animal habitats with towns and land trusts to inform decisions about town planning and open space conservation.
The program has been a great success. But now we wrestled with questions about climate change and sea-level rise: How would it affect the plants and animals that are the focus of the Beginning with Habitat program? What will happen when the temperatures increase, rainfall and snowfall patterns change, non-native pests and plants expand their invasion, and the sea rises?
A sub-team of the partnership was formed to try to answer these questions and investigate the impact of climate change on Maine’s priority plants, animals and habitats. Led by Andrew Whitman of Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, the team decided to rely on the expert opinion of many scientists throughout Maine and the Northeast.
More than 100 scientists contributed their expert knowledge and opinions to the process through an in-depth online survey and an intensive one-day workshop. It was at this one-day workshop that I found myself at a table with other wildlife biologists who have spent their lives researching and conserving all types of birds and their habitats.
As other groups discussed plants, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles and invertebrates (such as beetles and dragonflies), our group discussed the future of birds. I quickly found that we had no definite answers. The uncertainties were overwhelming at times.
For instance, Atlantic puffins nest on Maine’s coastal islands and feed on herring and other fish in the Gulf of Maine. But they also spend a considerable amount of time outside the Gulf of Maine – in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Labrador Sea and other areas along the Atlantic coast. It is difficult to predict the effects of climate change on their food base in the Gulf of Maine, much less all the other areas that puffins rely on in a typical year.
We discussed these and many other questions that day. In the end, we identified 168 vulnerable species that could experience large range shifts and population declines as a result of climate change in Maine by 2100. They include Atlantic salmon, Blanding’s turtle, least and roseate terns, Atlantic puffin, red knot, saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow, American oystercatcher, piping plover, moose and Canada lynx.
We found that many of our existing habitat conservation efforts should succeed despite climate change. We also found that we might need new adaptive strategies—ones that put even more emphasis on connected habitats to allow plants and animals to respond to changing climate.
While only time will confirm our assessments, we hope this report will support decisions and actions that ensure a strong future for Maine’s natural heritage.