How to Conserve Endangered Species in the Face of Climate Change

Climate change has the potential to cause mass extinctions. In light of that, the Endangered Species Coalition put out a report this week documenting the 10 most crucial ecosystems that should be saved in the US to protect vulnerable species.

The group, which includes the Center for Biodiversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Audobon Society among others, chose 10 diverse ecosystems. They include specific places like the Everglades, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and Greater Yellowstone. They also include broader ecosystems like coral reefs and Arctic sea ice.

Each ecosystem faces a unique threat from climate change. For example, the main concerns for coral reefs are ocean acidification and rising water temperatures. These factors contribute to coral bleaching, which kills coral and the species that rely on it for protection and sustenance.

In the Sierra Nevada, there’s a different host of problems. Reduced snowpack alters spring run off. In turn, that disrupts amphibian life cycles. Other animals like the pika are hit with a double whammy. Active all year long, pikas rely on snowpack as a blanket. Freeze thaw cycles reduce that insulation. At the same time, pikas are intolerant to high summer temperatures, another problem starting to plague the Sierra.

The Ties that Bind

The common threads between all 10 ecosystems are high densities of endangered species and their vulnerability to climate change. Endangered species are already on tenuous ground. The shock of a climate change could push them over the edge into extinction.

And in many of the ecosystems, climate change is already a real problem. The report notes that in Greater Yellowstone, warmer temperatures are causing bark beetle at higher elevations. This has resulted in 82% mortality for the whitebark pine, a keystone species that provides food for grizzly bears and erosion control.

“Climate change is no longer a distant threat on the horizon. It has arrived and is threatening ecosystems that we all depend upon, and our endangered species are particularly vulnerable,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition.

There are differing estimates as to how bad things will get for species globally. A widely cited paper from the journal Nature published in 2004 estimates that 15-37% of animal and plant species will be extinct or on their way there by 2050 if emissions continue unabated. The number has been disputed by other researchers, with some saying it will be much lower while others believe it to be higher.

The Solution

While scientists are grappling with numbers the Endangered Species Coalition believes we need to get started on solutions right now. They present three ideas in the report.

First and foremost, they call for more hands on conservation and habitat restoration. That means looking for solutions in the ecosystem. In Greater Yellowstone, 18% of whitebark pine trees have shown resiliency to bark beetles. Using conservation science to figure out what makes these trees special and then passing that on to other trees is a crucial stopgap measure.

There are also two approaches to future conservation and restoration. On the one hand, preserving current habitats within a species’ range buys time. But ultimately, as climate changes, species’ ranges will change with it. Preserving new land ahead of this anticipated shift will play a vital role for future resiliency.

The second suggestion in the report is stronger protection for species through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Getting protection under ESA means the government will put more money and effort towards conservation of those species and their habitats.

However, filing for ESA listing due to climate change has had limited success. Polar bears got listed as threatened amidst heavy controversy in 2008. Since then, the pika, two types of seals, and the Emperor penguin have been denied, though.
ESA is seen as another possible tool to force federal action to reduce emissions. Although it might not have the legal standing of other mechanisms, it never hurts to have as many arrows in your quiver as possible.

Finally, the report also offers 10 actions for the individual to protect endangered species from climate change. Some of them might be obvious such as taking public transit but getting a reminder never hurts. Especially when you have a picture of a pika there to remind you of what’s at stake.

Photo credit: the author (top), Jim Peaco/NPS (bottom)