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Adaptation and mitigation motivate wildlife managers

The Wildlife Forecast

Friday, January 01, 2010

Media contact: Patricia Behnke

Despite some of the drama that emerged during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, the leaders of the world's major polluters - Brazil, India, China, South Africa and the United States - agreed on a compromise with a nonbinding agreement. Some thought the agreement a good step; others were not so sure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the media that the outcome in Copenhagen was a first step toward a "new world climate order, nothing more but also nothing less." That seems to be the consensus among many of the 193 nations represented at the summit.

The accord states that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced enough to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. It is a major accomplishment to have such disparate nations agreeing that something must be done and giving it a name. It is now up to the folks on the ground to do the real work on mitigating climate change impacts while adapting to those changes already in place.

As I sift through the reports from across the sea, I ponder what it all means in terms of Florida and wildlife in particular. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) climate change working groups are weighing the strategies that fall into two categories: adaptation or mitigation, or maybe both.

"For a long time we've been discussing everything in terms of adaptation," said Doug Parsons, FWC's climate change coordinator. "But we also are involved in mitigation activities whenever we take degraded or destroyed habitat and bring it back to a state that will sustain wildlife."

Any habitat that brings back life in and of itself is contributing to the lessening of carbon emissions. In Florida, we're doing this as a natural part of wildlife management.

"Doing what we know is healthy for wildlife and habitat means we are doing what is healthy for humans as well," Parsons said. "Even though the scientists agree that climate change is a reality, when we manage for resilience and adaptation, we are making wise choices for our future as residents of Florida."

Adaptation goes along with the belief that climate change is beyond changing - all we can do is make the best of the situation. The strategies that help wildlife adapt to a changing climate include such things as creating connectivity between habitats and providing corridors for wildlife to travel. Anticipating the fluctuation of the human population moving inland also is crucial to helping both humans and wildlife adapt. I received an e-mail the other day from someone who wrote, "Why are we worrying about the wildlife when humans are going to be having an equally hard time adapting?"

It's something I hear frequently. And the answer lies in our connection with wildlife. If native wildlife disappears, if habitats become unhealthy, if seas cover what is now livable land, there is not much hope for healthy humans either, unless we work now to adapt. We will be impacted physically, environmentally, socially and economically. The depletion of native wildlife will have reverberations across the whole spectrum of human existence.

As the world's nations came together to look at the big picture, others are already at work making good management decisions. A partnership between four states in the southeastern United States will assist with adaptability, while mitigating the effects of carbon emissions. The FWC, along with agencies from Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, received grant money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase the quality, quantity and connectivity of priority sandhill sites in the four states. More than 38,500 acres of sandhill habitat will be restored through prescribed fire, removal of vegetation not conducive to the habitat and the replanting of longleaf pine. This habitat improvement will be welcoming to species such as gopher tortoises and native bird species.

In addition, Florida and Alabama are working together, along with The Nature Conservancy, to create a natural corridor, which will assist wildlife as they adapt to climate change by moving to climates that are more hospitable.

This project represents one of the best examples of adaptation and mitigation by providing healthy habitat that will sequester carbon emissions rather than disperse them into the atmosphere.

"By using appropriate management to restore habitat quality and connectivity, we're adding to the resiliency of Florida's wildlife," said Anna Farmer, FWC biologist and co-author of the grant. "This will ensure that during climate change, Florida's wildlife will be able to weather the storm."

It may not be on the world stage, but it is conservation at its best, right where it counts.

FWC Facts:
Along the Florida coast from 1990 to 2011, sea turtles annually made between 51,000 and 93,000 nests.

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