Conservation Isn’t Enough Anymore
Climate change is creating uncertainty for the future of many species. This is a problem for conservation efforts as it leads to an extra layer of complexity regarding how to manage wildlife populations. Conservation practices generally aim to resist change or support the recovery of wildlife following a disturbance such as drought, hunting, or habitat loss. However, climate change doesn’t work like a single disturbance, but rather as an accelerating change. As such, these practices are becoming less effective. The question is how conservationists should change their approach in the face of climate change. A team of researchers used predictions about changes to bird populations in Canada’s national parks to help answer this question.
National parks are important for sustaining the biodiversity of many countries. However, because protected areas and parks often cover more extreme environments such as mountains, forests, and arid regions, they are also at risk of being more severely disturbed by climate change than unprotected areas. The species that inhabit national parks and protected areas all have a preferred climate, but some species will find it easier to adapt to changes in temperature, rainfall, or the availability of food than others. For example, more adaptable species of birds may respond to the summer warmth arriving earlier in the year by simply nesting earlier. However, some species of bird with longer migration distances might struggle to reach their nesting grounds earlier in the year. As a result, they are forced to find new suitable nesting grounds or risk facing extinction.
Canada’s national parks have already seen a decline in bird populations because of climate change. Here, researchers predicted how the suitability of Canada’s national parks for their bird populations will change with a 2.0°C rise in global temperatures, as is predicted to happen in the next 50 years. This research is valuable because it informs current conservation efforts and increases public awareness of the threat that climate change poses to wildlife.
The researchers looked at 49 Canadian national parks, covering nearly 300,000km2 of land and over 10,000km2 of water, to make their projections. They used a model that accounted for the effects of a temperature rise on local climate, vegetation, and other features of Canada’s national parks that may affect bird habitation. From this model, they compared how 434 bird species are predicted to change compared to the recorded populations in 2010. They categorized potential changes into five categories:
1. Potential extirpation: a species was present in 2010 but not with a two-degree rise in temperature.
2. Worsening: the suitability of a species’ habitat would decrease by at least 25%.
3. Stable: the suitability of a species’ habitat would not increase or decrease by more than 25%.
4. Improving: the suitability of a species’ habitat would increase by at least 25%.
5. Potential colonization: a species was not present in 2010 but is present with the projected temperature increase.
To enrich their data, the researchers also predicted changes in the functional traits of each bird population, meaning the functions in their ecological network that the species carry out, such as their primary food types and preferred habitat.
By comparing their projections with recorded data from 2010, the researchers estimate that only 30% of bird species will remain stable with a 2.0°C rise in global temperatures. All 49 parks are predicted to experience potential expiration (local extinction within a given park) or colonization (a new species appearance within a given park). These are classified as the most extreme changes to the bird populations. They also found a lot of regional variation. For example, parks in the Arctic region are expected to experience the most potential bird colonization as the climate becomes warmer. The greatest overall change in bird population was seen in Auyuittuq, a park in Canada’s Arctic region; this park is predicted to experience a 42% change in the types of species of bird that inhabit it if global temperatures rise by 2.0°C.
All these changes to Canada’s species composition mean that the functional traits of the birds would be greatly altered. In other words, the bird populations wouldn’t carry out the same roles in their habitats as before. While an in-depth study of these changes was beyond the scope of this research, it’s important to note that the changes in bird populations will impact Canada’s national parks in much broader ways than just the types of bird species that inhabit them.
Not only is it impossible to prevent the changes to wildlife that climate change is causing, it is also counterproductive and potentially harmful. If conservationists focus on preserving the natural behaviors of a given species, they may accidentally prevent that species from adapting to its changing environment. Some areas that are not predicted to experience significant ecological changes may benefit from traditional conservation approaches, but this is no longer the norm. The research shows that all of Canada’s national parks will experience at least some degree of ecological change. Conservation efforts need to support species through these changes, using forward-looking, adaptive strategies that prevent ecological collapse regardless of what comes next.
The authors note that the study is best treated as evidence of the need for conservationists to change how they carry out their work, rather than a manual for specific conservation strategies. They provide a few examples of changes: For example, connecting different types of habitats would allow animals to adjust their habitat preferences. Such “habitat connectivity” is important because it allows local populations to migrate to other areas if they can no longer survive in their previous habitat. Taking a more adaptable approach to conservation would also allow park managers to support unexpected changes to an animal’s behavior rather than only having the resources to support animals in one environment. Finally, conservationists should seek to broaden their understanding of the species they are protecting, especially their behaviors. This will likely require financial support from governments, charities, and the public and will allow conservationists to make more informed decisions regarding ecosystem management at times of immense turbulence.