Home on the Range? Planning for Change on the Prairies

By Anne Schrag, WWF-US

In April, I was stymied by a late-season blizzard; in mid-June, extreme flooding washed out a section of TransCanada Highway.  Finally, in late June I was able to make the drive from our Bozeman, Montana field office to Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan to lead a planning workshop on climate adaptation. The direct impact of severe weather events—which are predicted to increase in the future—was not lost on the participants.

I’ve begun leading workshops like this in the Northern Great Plains, along with some colleagues from other conservation organizations, to help land managers identify ways to integrate climate change adaptation into natural resource planning.  For this workshop, we invited a group of Canadian federal and provincial managers and participants from universities and other regional organizations.  We were there to discuss integrating climate adaptation into a long-term planning process called the South-of-the-Divide Species at Risk Action Plan.

The workshop was loosely based on a framework called the Adaptation for Conservation Targets (ACT)

Framework, developed by Molly Cross (Wildlife Conservation Society), the Center for Large Landscape

Conservation and a group of researchers at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.  The ACT Framework helps managers to overcome “analysis paralysis” by stepping through a series of actions that blend the collective knowledge of workshop participants with available scientific data on changes that have occurred or are expected to occur due to climate change.  One of the key principles of the framework is to think through multiple future scenarios of change and to identify actions that will be useful no matter what the future holds and those that are tied more closely to a particular future.

Prior to the workshop, a group of scientists with technical expertise in species biology and climate change identified target focal systems (e.g., grasslands) around which we centered the workshop.  Then, these scientists chose three likely future climate scenarios, based on data from global circulation models.  These scenarios were used to produce maps of future land cover (e.g., short-grass prairie switching to sagebrush) and productivity (the amount of plant matter that is available as forage for animals).  Productivity was modeled because it is an important indicator for understanding both impacts of climate change on species and on the economics of the area, which are largely dependent upon cattle production.

With this information in hand, we started the meeting by developing a list of impacts of climate change on species at risk that inhabit the focal systems.  For instance, for northern leopard frogs, we discussed the possibility of decreased flows in rivers and loss of ephemeral water sources due to decreases in available water and increased variability in the timing and form of the water (e.g., rain vs. snow).  We then tied these changes to loss of overwinter habitat (rivers) and breeding habitat (ephemeral ponds).  We also discussed the certainty associated with these predictions (e.g., how sure are we that decreases in precipitation will eventually lead to loss of habitat versus frogs being able to find alternate habitats?).

We then began work on developing management objectives and concrete steps the managers could take to reach these objectives.  We discussed the concepts of resistance, resilience and response with respect to change.  For instance, do we want to keep what’s there now (resistance)?  Or are we open to allowing new species to move in as long as the ecosystem is functioning in a way that will allow it to provide habitat for a diverse range of species and also provide ecosystem services that are critical for human communities?  These are larger philosophical questions that must be addressed over time, but discussing the possibility of forwardthinking adaptation techniques that may allow the system to change was a victory for the group.

Many of the actions that managers identified can be lumped into two groups: 1) maintaining a diversity of structures within systems to promote high levels of biodiversity (e.g., light, medium and heavy grazing that creates a mosaic across the landscape); and 2) finding incentives for private landowners to maintain wildlife habitat in areas adjacent to public lands so that wildlife are able to move to new areas to adapt to change.  They were also able to identify specific intervention points where changes may be made to help species adapt.  For example, flows in many rivers in Saskatchewan are regulated and may be changed to allow for sensitive species to adapt.  In addition, the participants identified areas in which information is lacking on how climate change will affect complex interactions (e.g., the interactions among habitat, prey abundance and processes like hibernation).

The results of the workshop will be used as part of the threat analysis being completed for the species at risk action plan.  But, there are many other potential opportunities for using the information from this workshop to ensure that resource management takes into account climate change.  For instance, policy work may allow for changes both on the ground—for example, changes in river flows to benefit a particular species—and at a regional or national level—for instance, creating subsidies to encourage the use of high-biodiversity, low-input native grasses for biofuels instead of traditional row crops.  These changes can then be monitored to determine their effectiveness.

I’ve been a part of a few of these workshops, and this one was a great example of participants thinking collaboratively about actions that may be taken on the ground to help species adapt to climate change.  This structured process allows managers time to brainstorm about conservation actions that would be beneficial across species and sites and ensure that biodiversity and habitat goals are achieved over the long term.  The next step will be to put these thoughts into action on the ground and monitor their effectiveness.

For more information on the ACT Framework and ways in which it has been applied, please contact Molly Cross (mcross@wcs.org or 1-406-522-9333.