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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Wetlands in a Warmer World

How Will Climate Changes Affect Waterfowl?
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Western Boreal Forest

The vast Western Boreal Forest of Alaska and northwestern Canada supports some 14 million breeding waterfowl. Many more birds use these habitats for molting or staging, or as a retreat when the prairies are dry.

Boreal forest ecosystems could be among the most-affected by global warming because of the greater temperature changes expected at high latitudes. Ecological predictions include lengthening ice-free seasons on lakes and rivers, earlier runoff, melting permafrost, and northward range shifts by plants and animals.

Substantial areas of western Canada's boreal forest were in drought conditions through much of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The biggest obstacle to anticipating impacts of climate change on waterfowl in this region is a lack of understanding of the basic ecology of boreal wetlands and breeding ducks. We know little about what limits waterfowl populations breeding in the region or the nature of wetland food webs on which ducks depend. This is a serious knowledge gap because while several duck species (scaup, scoters) in this region are declining, resource development (oil and gas, forestry, mining) is rapidly expanding, and climate change impacts are expected to be profound. Farther north, some arctic regions seem destined to experience greater warming than anywhere else in the northern hemisphere. Longer ice-free seasons will mean longer and more favorable breeding seasons for arctic geese. For some species, this would be great news; for the white geese, however, increased production could aggravate problems with overgrazed breeding habitats.

What Should Conservationists Do Now?

People are challenged to make important environmental, social, and economic decisions in a world pervaded by uncertainties. The prospects of global climate change pose especially difficult challenges for conservation planners because of the scale and complexity of the problem, the long time required to learn about impacts, and the high degree of uncertainty associated with some of the predictions about future conditions.

But uncertainty doesn't preclude the need for conservation decisions today. The immediate challenge for DU and like-minded organizations is to judge what adaptations to future conditions are prudent now, even if we are unsure, and, second, what should be done to improve our understanding of climate change and options for future adaptation. Scientific monitoring is essential in those systems that seem most vulnerable (e.g., Prairie Pothole Region, coastal zones, Western Boreal Forest). Improving our understanding of how current swings in climatic conditions affect wildlife populations and their habitats would allow us to anticipate climate impacts much better than we can today. Monitoring changes in other sectors that impact wildlife conservation (e.g., agriculture, forestry) should yield early signals of impending challenges or new opportunities.

DU will seek opportunities that might be lurking in the global greenhouse. Some regions might become a good deal wetter-and for ducks, where there is water there is opportunity. Conversely, where freshwater becomes scarcer, a wider segment of society should value the role that wetlands, grasslands, and forests can play in ensuring that clean water flows from our watersheds. Some waterfowl habitats may have potential to help remove CO2 from the atmosphere and thereby bring new funding partners for habitat restoration.

Waterfowl habitats throughout the continent have been affected profoundly by human development. Any effects of climate change will be imposed on top of existing pressures. In most places one obvious adaptation would be to reduce existing stresses on wetlands (e.g., nutrient loading, toxic chemicals, filling, drainage, soil erosion, urban encroachment) and, thereby, reduce vulnerability to further climate-induced alterations. This may be the single most important and achievable thing that we can do today to prepare for a warmer but uncertain future.

Want More Information? Visit the following Web sites: The US National Assessment and Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change.

Nature's Carbon Traps

Ducks Unlimited and its conservation partners are exploring opportunities for using wetlands, grasslands, and bottomland hardwood forests to take up, or sequester, atmospheric carbon. If this works as well as some scientists predict, it may provide added incentive for North American society to conserve and restore waterfowl habitat. Power producers, energy companies, and other private industries are already investing speculatively in international carbon credits. The basic notion is that industry or governments might be allowed to offset some portion of their carbon emissions by restoring natural habitats that remove carbon from the atmosphere and incorporate it in plant tissue and soil organic matter. Restoration of bottomland hardwood forests seems tailor-made for such a program. Carbon cycling in other habitats, like prairie wetlands, needs additional study to test their carbon storage potential. DU is actively exploring these opportunities and facilitating research needed to guide the way.
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