Wildlife refuge plans show strengths and weaknesses for adaptation to climate change

October 8, 2014, American Institute of Biological Sciences

As the effects of a changing climate become acute, organizations charged with overseeing refuge areas must take action to adapt. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) maintains the National Wildlife Refuge System, which constitutes world's largest system of protected lands and waters. According to a November BioScience article by Robert Fischman and Vicky Meretsky of Indiana University and their coauthors, 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 nonclimate impacts, and enhance resilience to climate change.

The authors undertook a study of 185 USFWS comprehensive conservation plans published from 2005 to 2011 and evaluated their coverage of nine categories. Of the 185 plans, 115 (62%) 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 USFWS'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 system."

Explore further: The double threat of climate and land use change enhances risks to biodiversity

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