Many plant and animal species are being found further north and at higher elevations than previously observed. Rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and shifts in vegetation communities are changing the effective range and distribution of many native and agricultural species.
It is likely that not all species in a community will respond to climate change in the same manner, or at the same rate. Some species may move readily across landscapes or habitats, as warming temperatures and changing ecological conditions alter their habitat. Less mobile species will change their distribution more slowly. Some, such as trees and other plants, will only be able to migrate through reproduction and seed distribution.
Differing rates of migration present a challenge for many species, which may have evolved to rely upon one another. For example, a pollinator and its preferred food plant may become separated. The problem of geographic separation is similar to the problem of temporal separation; in both cases, interdependent species may become separated as their environment changes.
Barriers to migration — urban development or unsuitable habitat, for example — may limit the ability of some species or populations to shift their distribution. In extreme cases, these isolated populations may decline or go extinct. Such isolation is a concern for many mountain-adapted species, which often have no option but to migrate further uphill, until they have populated the highest elevation in a particular mountain range.
Species shifts pose complex management questions. Some land trusts are already implementing conservation strategies to maintain native communities and control invasive species. These goals may become increasingly difficult to achieve as species adjust their distribution in response to climate change.
The consequences of species migration include:
Land trusts are responding to the potential of migrating species in various ways. Some groups are working to expand the connectivity of conserved landscapes to allow for species migration, while others are prioritizing acquisitions of vulnerable areas with exceptional biodiversity to enhance system-wide resilience. In addition to employing strategic conservation planning to reduce risks and enhance resilience, some land trusts are also supporting efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the extent of future climate change.
Land trusts must determine the right planning approach for their organization, however, more and more, conservation organizations are working with their communities to identify opportunities to reduce vulnerabilities and prepare for changing temperatures. Agencies are making similar strides to implement projects that reduce risks and plan for resilience by incorporating adaptation, mitigation, and engagement into their strategic goals and objectives. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change identifies seven planning and development goals to support sustainable landscapes. Conservation groups are increasingly partnering with agencies as well as other nonprofits and for-profit organizations to respond to this global challenge at local levels.
Resilience describes the ability of a system to persist through extreme change. By working to identify and reduce potential threats land managers can build resilience and achieve multiple management objectives. Assessing vulnerabilities is a critical step in the strategic conservation planning process that helps land trusts identify key threats to resources. Adaptive management planning enables conservation practitioners to implement interventions to reduce vulnerabilities and to monitor and revise strategies as new information becomes available. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing management challenges associated with warming average temperatures, however, planning that acknowledges vulnerabilities can help land trusts better achieve their conservation objectives.