Sunday, June 21, 2015

Speak up for wildlife as they try to adapt to Climate Change

Several centuries too late, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) gets moving on establishing a baseline for freshwater mussels. Mussels are these incredible filter feeders that not only keep our waters clean, but provide a foundation for stream, river, and lake ecosystems in our region. And, according to the DEC “Almost all kinds of mussels and clams are sensitive to pollution and environmental stress.”1 Which is to say, mussels are not only excellent indicators of water quality but Climate Change too. Because, as you know, Climate Change can be very stressful.

So, why is our environmental authority just getting around to quantifying and measuring the impact of this critical wildlife species? Without a long-term baseline from which to compare then and now, we don’t know whether invasive species (like the incredibly damaging Zebra Mussels) are destroying our endemic mussels, whether the tons of industrial waste, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer run-offs are affecting them, or whether our warming waters from Climate Change are going to send these little creatures to oblivion. It is likely that one reason the DEC has been late to mussel research is that much of DEC funding comes from fishing and hunting licenses. Those who harvest our wildlife tend care about critters as game, not in their role in keeping our ecosystems healthy.

We need to find a way to make sure that ‘we the people’ get more of a voice in deciding on the DEC’s role in managing wildlife in a time of warming (hence the importance of public comment on this plan ((see below, I’m getting to it)) by July 17th). Those who have specific interests in keeping specific species plentiful for their sport should not have undue influence with our state environmental authority, a louder voice than the accumulated interest of all of us on a fragile planet as we try to adapt to Climate Change. Advocates for birds get heard, but there are no advocates for freshwater mussels—or beavers for that matter. But that is another essay.

This essay is about Climate Change and wildlife. Sorry, I got a little side-tracked, but so did Wednesday’s Proposed State Wildlife Action Plan public meeting at the local DEC headquarters in Avon. It took us awhile to get through the mussels before we got down to the plan. This is the plan:

“The proposed State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) to protect rare and declining wildlife species is now available for public comment, state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens announced today. The deadline for comment is Friday, July 17.”

The SWAP is a comprehensive plan for the next ten years to protect wildlife from such common threats as “loss of habitat, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.”2
Issues like loss of habitat (a euphemism for massive destruction of lands and wetlands from development) pollution, and invasive species get little consideration from the DEC because these wildlife threats tend to be baked into our way of life. It would require a very heavy lift to get a majority of the public and the DEC focused on wildlife threats that are exceedingly difficult and inconvenient to solve without disrupting today’s economic growth. So it goes.

Vanishingly small is the attention the DEC gives the threat to our wildlife by Climate Change. Yet, on paper the SWAP gets the connection between wildlife and Climate Change.

Climate Change & Severe Weather - Threats from long-term climatic changes which may be linked to global warming and other severe climatic/weather events that are outside of the natural range of variation, or potentially can wipe out a vulnerable species or habitat.
10.1. Habitat Shifting & Alteration - Changes in habitat composition and location.
10.2. Droughts - Periods in which rainfall falls below the normal range of variation.
10.3. Temperature Extremes - Periods in which temperatures exceed or go below the normal range of variation.
10.4. Storms & Flooding - Extreme precipitation and/or wind events. (Page 25, “Draft State Wildlife Action Plan for Public Comment”)

But in real life, the DEC rarely connects the dots. My impression is that the DEC only connects Climate Change and wildlife as they are related to mitigation (i.e., stopping greenhouse gas ((GHG)) emissions), not adaptation. The DEC heralds the ClimAID report, the New York State Climate Action Plan Interim Report, Climate Smart Communities program, and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as their way of addressing Climate Change. These studies and programs concentrate on lowering greenhouse gases, which in turn reduces the consequences to wildlife as mentioned above. In other words, helping wildlife to adapt to Climate Change is like President Reagan’s way of helping the poor by trickling down the wealth of the rich. These are not going to address the specific issues wildlife have with adapting to Climate Change in any time frame or on a level that will matter.

We know from the ClimAID and Interim Report that wildlife will have to move in order to avoid the heat. But much of their ability to move requires getting across the barriers of our transportation system (highways and canals) and adapting ten times faster than the 10,000 years of a stable climate before pre-industrial times. Part of adapting is that the ecosystem of which wildlife is an integral part must also ‘move’ with the creatures. In order for a frog to leave a wetland, its wetland must ‘leave’ with it. Cold water fish (trout) need to be able to move upstream or dive for deeper water to exist. Without a stream free of obstructions (dams) or an increase in shade and water deep enough for them to cool off, these fish will not adapt. (Note: restocking fish every year is not adapting; it only creates the illusion of adapting -- like thinking you can stay within your budget even though your parents keep bailing you out.)

Our wildlife require the ecosystems they evolved with. Let me drill down a little deeper on this point: wildlife not are simply individual creatures who just happen to ‘like’ living in a certain place. Wildlife are the place. Without frogs and bugs and fish and birds and all those little creatures that breakdown life and recycle it, a wetland is just a watery ditch that collects cigarette butts. A ditch not a biological system. A plan to protect our wildlife must be a plan to protect our ecosystems. And that plan should be a part of our climate plans. The SWAP should spell out exactly what our environmental authority is doing to help wildlife adapt to Climate Change—and be held accountable for their actions. The specific actions mentioned by the SWAP in Planning and Administration Projects should be formulated with Climate Change in mind—not as an afterthought. Adaptation strategies like creating transportation corridors so wildlife can move across our highways; removing dams and changing culverts so aquatic life can move to cool off; and preventing development in or near wetlands, these all need to demonstrate that they are helping wildlife adapt. If not, these actions need to be readjusted to that end. And (always mentioned last even though it is critical) educating the public about wildlife’s role in our environment and what the general public can do to augment the state’s efforts.

Educating the public on wildlife and Climate Change could have the wonderful effect of getting the public to tolerate wildlife in their backyards. Because much of what constitutes New York State is private property, this change of attitude towards wildlife would go far in allowing our property to be passageways to adaptation and maybe homes for those creatures we evicted long ago. The City of Rochester’s Wildlife webpage explains how urbanites can learn to get along safely with those beings we should no longer be calling a nuisance.   

Consider making comment to the SWAP by Friday, July 17. First, read the draft SWAP, then if you need more information, contact Joe Racette at (518) 402-8933 or joe.racette@dec.ny.gov. Comments should be sent to SWAPComments@dec.ny.gov or mailed to Joe Racette, NYSDEC, 625 Broadway, 5th Floor, Albany, NY 12233. Really, Joe and the DEC want to hear from you. Because if the public doesn’t speak for our wildlife, only the special interest folks will get heard.




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