A rapidly changing climate is magnifying existing environmental stressors such as habitat loss and fragmentation, water quality and quantity, and the spread of invasive species. Climate change is impacting ecosystems everywhere, regardless of protected status. Firmly rooted in sound science, an adaptive, landscape-scale conservation approach and collaboration with others, the Service’s 2010 Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Changeis a call to arms and a clear roadmap for action:

“We must act boldly with the information we have, confident that we will learn and adapt as we go. And most importantly, we must act now, as if the future of fish and wildlife and people hangs in the balance — for indeed, all indications are that it does.”

The protection and management of wildlife refuge lands and waters to maintain biological integrity, diversity and environmental health are critically important to support ecological resilience and facilitate adaptation of fish, wildlife and plants to climate change at landscape scales. Ecological resilience is defined as the ability of ecosystems to withstand disturbances and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks. Critical conservation delivery strategies to enhance ecological resilience include maintaining or restoring the ecological integrity of existing conservation units, enhancing linkages and connectivity among units, buffering core areas, identifying and protecting climate refugia, and ensuring adequate representation of our nation’s ecological communities in the collective conservation estate.

The Service’s strategic plan for responding to climate change recognizes that adaptation strategies can be anticipatory or reactive. Anticipatory adaptation manages towards a new climate change-induced equilibrium; reactive adaptation abates the impact by trying to maintain the current condition despite climate change.

The Service primarily is employing reactive adaptation strategies. This overall approach makes sense as a means of “holding ground and hedging bets” while considerable uncertainty about climate change impacts remain and the Refuge System faces the immediate need to counter environmental stressors. Over time, uncertainty about climate change impacts will be reduced, and the vulnerability of ecosystems and plant and animal populations to environmental change will be better understood. As this occurs, the Service can shift to a predominantly anticipatory approach to protecting and managing refuge lands and waters.  Maintaining or restoring habitats, ecological processes, and plant and animal populations on wildlife refuges will require reconsideration of desired outcomes as climate change impacts are more accurately predicted. Accelerated climate change will occur over the next century regardless of the successes of mitigation efforts. Therefore, reducing “non-climate stressors” to increase ecological integrity on wildlife refuges and ecological resilience at landscape scales are more critical than ever.

Targeted restoration will also be necessary in many wildlife refuge landscapes to bring an altered landscape back into balance. The word “restoration” is often associated with a backward-looking mindset, trying to return to a lost condition in the past. Instead, restoration efforts in the Refuge System should focus on strategically replacing highly altered landscapes with native plant communities to create the best possible current and future habitat for trust species. Restoration efforts that try to recreate the past may have limited success in a highly altered landscape under predicted climate change scenarios. Restoration efforts and restored landscapes should create landscape-level habitats or habitat complexes capable of supporting genetically viable populations and metapopulations of trust species, be resilient to short-term climate fluctuations and long-term climate change, recreate as many ecosystem processes as possible on the landscape, integrate partnerships with federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private landowners and integrate with future acquisition efforts to strategically grow the conservation estate. Maintaining biological integrity, diversity and environmental health on national wildlife refuges and contributing to ecological resilience and climate change adaptation will require innovation, flexibility and adapting policy to changing conditions.

Recommendation: Complete a step-down of the goals in the Service’s 2010 Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change for the Refuge System that prioritizes and guides future actions.

Recommendation: Review and update policy for managing biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health on wildlife refuges. The benchmark for desired conditions must anticipate that climate-changed ecological conditions may preclude managing for historic conditions.

Recommendation: Review and update Service policies on Comprehensive Conservation Planning and Wilderness Stewardship to reflect that climate-changed ecological conditions may preclude managing for historic conditions.

Recommendation: Include climate change adaptation criteria in the overhaul of the Land Acquisition Prioritization System.

Comment below and/or move on to next section of Chapter 2- Issues, Concerns, and Systemic Challenges in Managing for Biological Integrity, Diversity and Environmental Health