A pine beetle is seen on the tip of a forester's knife during the examination of trees in the White River National Forest near Vail, Colo., on July 5, 2005. / Ed Andrieski, AP
From birds in the Plains to bighorn sheep in California to caribou in Alaska and moose in Minnesota, a new study says animals are struggling to adapt to the new climate conditions caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which produces the carbon dioxide that warms the atmosphere.
"Climate change is the biggest threat wildlife will face this century," says the report released today by the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group based in Reston, Va.
Though animals have adapted to natural climate variation since the beginning of time, the changes are happening much faster than they are able to respond. "The underlying climatic conditions to which species have been accustomed for thousands of years are rapidly changing, and we are already witnessing the impacts," according to the report, called "Wildlife in a Warming World."
The federation says the warning is not based on computer simulations of what could happen to wildlife: "The evidence is that it's happening right here and right now." says climate scientist Amanda Staudt of the wildlife federation. She says that many animal and plant species are shifting their ranges to colder locales and that these shifts are taking place two to three times faster than scientists anticipated.
A couple of species facing local extinctions, the report notes, are bighorn sheep in California and two populations of checkerspot butterflies in the San Francisco Bay area.
Why should we care? Besides the moral aspect of caring for our fellow creatures, wildlife contributes "hundreds of billions of dollars each year to the U.S. economy," says Mark Shaffer, national climate change policy director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was not part of the report. He says there are a variety of ways that wildlife is of value to people, whether through catching, harvesting or just viewing.
"We are certainly beginning to see the effects of climate change on wildlife," he says. "And we're expecting more effects in the future."
For instance, he says, by feeding on insects, bats contribute up to $3 billion to pest control services each year.
In the West, the warmth has led to an explosion in one species of pest: "Widespread pine beetle infestations have left broad swaths of dead and highly combustible trees in their wake," according the report, helping contribute to fierce wildfire seasons. The 2012 wildfire season was only the third time since records began in 1960 that burned areas in the USA exceeded 9 million acres.
Although there could be some benefits to wildlife from the increasing warmth, there will be many more negative than positive impacts, says Michelle Staudinger, a fellow with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Climate Change and Wildlife Center, which was not part of the report.
Staudinger adds that climate change adds to the stresses wildlife faces in the USA, which include pollution, land use changes and exploitation. "Climate change is interacting with these other stressors, leading to more rapid declines in their populations," she says.
"Already there is evidence that climate change is causing declines in species populations and localized extinctions," according to the NWF report. "Exactly how many species go extinct will depend on how much the planet warms during the coming decades, with much higher extinction rates projected for higher temperature increases."
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