North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures
Help Protect the Vulnerable Wildlands of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests

Global Climate Change

American hemlock. photo by Lamar Marshall

Those who doubt the reality of global climate change probably also fret about sailing off the edge of the world. Not all the evidence is in, surely, but the weight of scientific evidence grows daily and is sufficient now to convince most people–even many former doubters — that climate change is well along.

Its impacts will affect us all and some are already apparent. Rising temperatures transform our lands and waters rapidly and dramatically. Glaciers are receding. Rising sea levels erode beaches and coastal wetlands. Inland lakes and wetlands, too, are drying up. Droughts and severe storms are more frequent as precipitation patterns shift. Wildland fires are becoming both more frequent and more intense.

Sportsmen, whose pursuits bring them closer than most to the natural world and perhaps more often, are seeing some of those impacts first.

A recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, “Season’s End,” documents projected consequences, along with some already-visible effects, of climate change on American hunting and fishing. (The Center’s Advisory Board includes four former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders: Howard Baker, Tennessee; George Mitchell, Maine; Tom Daschle, South Dakota; and, Bob Dole, Kansas.)

From upland birds and waterfowl to big game to freshwater fish, virtually no group important to hunters and anglers is likely to escape unscathed, the report finds. Here are excerpts.

• Upland birds: In the Deep South, summertime drought and high temperatures will shrink bobwhite quail populations by disrupting the birds’ breeding cycles and reducing the availability of insects they feed on. Hot, dry conditions will also stunt the growth of vegetative cover, leaving broods vulnerable to predators.

• Big game: Across the continent, deer, elk and other big game populations will shrink as high levels of greenhouse gases make the plants they eat less nourishing and tougher to digest.

• Freshwater fish: Nationally, up to 42 percent of current trout and salmon habitat will be lost before the end of the century and the South is one of the regions that will experience especially severe reductions. In lower elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, as much as 97 percent of the wild trout population could die.

While better able than trout to adapt to increased water temperatures, bass, bluegill and other warm-water species will face other threats from global warming. For example, changes in precipitation patterns–heavy, flood-producing rains interspersed with extended droughts–will cause major fluctuations in water levels, dramatically reducing the survival rate of eggs, larvae and fry.

• Waterfowl: Hunters from the Dakotas to Louisiana, from California to Virginia are reporting that migrations are occurring later in the season–and in some instances, not occurring at all. The Chenier Plain marshes of Louisiana, supporting over 1.3 million waterfowl today, could eventually support as little as one percent of that number. (A hard copy of the report is available by contacting the Bipartisan Policy Center, 1225 I Street N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005. Phone: 202.204.2400)

If climate change is likely to fall hard on game species, songbirds and others, it may be a boon to less welcome species –pests, if you will. The following section looks at the ravages of the hemlock woolly adelgid. Cold winters, which tend to knock back the adelgid and other insect pests, will be less a factor, probably allowing adelgids to sustain voracious populations that normal winters historically have constrained. And as temperate zones swing farther and farther north, the range of such pests will expand. Invasive plants are gaining new footholds, native plants struggling.

Wildlife that depend on these habitats are under increasing stress as urban sprawl, energy development in some parts of the country and motorized recreation nearly everywhere encroach on the very habitats set aside to protect wildlife.

What Does All of This Have To Do With Wilderness and Forest Management?

Every natural system, including wilderness, is vulnerable to climate change. Greg Aplet, senior forest scientist for The Wilderness Society, and other scientists are unequivocal on that point. Yet Aplet believes that wilderness protection is a crucial part of a strategy to address climate change and he cites two reasons:

• First, climate change represents yet one more stress, piled atop other stresses forest ecosystems now face. When all these stresses are combined, ecosystems are at greater risk. Because wilderness ecosystems are protected from a number of other stressors–such as fragmentation from logging and roads and motorized-recreation–wilderness should be more resilient to climate change than unprotected areas.

• Second, because climate change has so clouded the future, including the future of our wildlands, the challenges themselves are unclear. So are the best responses. We will probably need to try a range of approaches to adaptation, including, possibly, such heavy-handed tactics as cultivation and assisted migration. But because we know so little about what will work, we will also need places where we do little or nothing. Wilderness is such a place and will continue to serve that vital role as we learn which approaches work best.

Maintaining healthy, intact ecosystems is one of our best options for helping wildlands and the species that depend on them to adapt to climate change. An old biological adage says: “adapt, migrate or die.” But what if change is so swift that adaptation is impossible, or if there are no suitable remaining places into which to migrate (or if there are and populations can’t overcome human-created barriers to reach it)?

As it writes new plans for the Nantahala and Pisgah, the Forest Service has a clear duty to very carefully and deliberately consider climate change in all of its management proposals. That will require at the outset that the agency gathers, analyzes and acts upon the best science available in making its decisions. Our job as citizens is to make sure that happens; they are our forests.

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