Hard times may be ahead for Maine’s moose, loons and salmon, according to a recent assessment released by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. These iconic Maine animals are just a few of the many species predicted to run into challenges due to climate change.
“The Maine of tomorrow will not be the Maine I grew up with,” said Andrew Whitman, director of the Sustainable Economies Initiative at Manomet and one of the seven authors of the assessment. “Species that are common to see may very well not be.”
Climate change greatly increases the vulnerability of approximately one-third of Maine’s species of conservation concern, according to the assessment, “Climate Change and Biodiversity in Maine: Vulnerability of Habitats and Priority Species,” published August 2013.
The study included more than 100 biologists and rated the vulnerability of 442 Maine species — vulnerability meaning “the degree to which a natural community or size of a species is likely to be diminished by changes in climate.”
Each species was ranked as high, medium or low vulnerability. Of the 442 species assessed, 168 (37 percent) were ranked at high vulnerability, and another 171 species (38 percent) were ranked at medium vulnerability.
“I think, for the average man, there will be a lot of surprising outcomes. Even for professionals in the conservation fields, there will be, ” said Steve Walker, project manager at Maine Coast Heritage Trust and an author of the assessment. “For me, the most surprising thing is that over 65 percent of the 400-some-odd species that were assessed by the scientific community came back as being highly or moderately vulnerable.”
According to two climate change reports, researchers predict that by 2100, average temperatures in Maine will have increased 3-14 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and 3-11 degrees in the summer. Precipitation is also projected to increase, especially in the winter.
Researchers also predict longer growing seasons, drier soil in late summer, shifting streams and rivers, a shorter snow season, a higher sea level (3-6 feet by 2100), warmer coastal seawater (6-10 degrees warmer by 2100), more carbon dioxide concentration in the air and more acidic oceans.
“It can be potentially paralyzing to try to deal with all of that,” said Barbara Vickery of The Nature Conservancy, an author of the assessment. “But throughout this report, we’ve been able to tap into the knowledge of literally more than 100 experts to point us in the direction of the species that are predicted to be at the greatest risk so we can focus our efforts more intelligently.”
The group of 168 species that ranked highly vulnerable to climate change includes fungi, lichen, alpine plants, wetland plants, invertebrates, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and a variety of birds and mammals.
“There are whole aspects of our biodiversity at risk, not narrow little slivers,” Whitman said. “It’s not like we might lose one or two things here or there that are a lot less common — it’s whole chunks of Maine that are at risk unless we think of creative ways to conserve them.”
The 55 vertebrate species ranked as having high vulnerability to climate change include animals highly representative of Maine, such as as the landlocked salmon, the common loon, the Atlantic puffin and the eastern moose.
“If you travel to Canada, moose and loon are very common, but if you go to Massachusetts, they aren’t,” Vickery said. “Maine is right on kind of the border of what’s an appropriate range for them, an appropriate habitat.”
And birders, prepare to cringe. There’s a large group of avians on the highly vulnerable vertebrates list, including harlequin duck, piping plover, spruce grouse, pine grosbeak, boreal chickadee and 37 other species.
Also on the vertebrates list are inland fish species — whitefish, rainbow smelt, round whitefish and Arctic charr — as well as Blanding’s turtle, mink frog, northern bog lemming, snowshoe hare, Canada lynx and American marten. All have been deemed highly vulnerable to climate change.
While the results of the assessment may seem a bit bleak, its purpose is to provide knowledge that can guide future wildlife management.
“I hope that the average Maine citizen finds this document interesting and eye-opening, but I hope it isn’t seen as discouraging,” Walker said. “Unlike states in the south, we have a great opportunity here to create landscapes that species can adapt to in the face of climate change.”
In the future, some of Maine’s native species may head north, where more suitable habitat might be found in Canada. Likewise, species from southern states may find new homes in Maine.
“We really need to remember that animals live where they live for a whole variety of reasons, and if the climate of Maine is going to become more like a state south of us, we need to picture that the flora and fauna of Maine will eventually look more like those states than what we’ve got right now,” said Vickery.
Maine isn’t the only state predicting the future consequences of climate change. New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and other states have now released vulnerability analyses of their wildlife species in the process of revising their state wildlife action plans, also known as SWAPs, by 2015. Maine’s plan, prepared by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, is called the Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy.
“If you look at Maine, we’re in a better place in terms of conservation to cope with climate change than many other states,” Whitman said. “Part of it is the amount of land we have and what has happened in terms of conservation. … People in Maine like to get out, get on the water, go hiking, go snowmobiling, enjoy nature’s benefits. It’s just Maine society. I’ve lived in other parts of the world, and there are few places I’ve ever been where people actually enjoy nature as much as I’ve seen here in Maine, and the land conservation wouldn’t happen without that. And when you think of going forward with conservation and maintaining biodiversity in Maine, that won’t happen unless that keeps going.”
“There are things that can be done, and there are also things we can’t do,” Vickery said. “Unfortunately, we’ve already put so much greenhouse gas into the air, even if we all stopped driving tomorrow, the climate would continue to grow warmer.
“We have to acknowledge there is going to be change,” she continued. “What we can do, perhaps, is reduce the rate of change. … What we can do is make sure we continue to have a wide variety of species around us, whether it’s for hunting and fishing or bird watching — I think there are things we can do for that.”
“We keep coming back to what we’ve been promoting in the state of Maine for the past umpteen years,” Walker said, “to maintain large blocks of continuous forest that are well connected, maintain buffers along streams, protect wetlands and shorelines — as a society, we have to be really serious about actually implementing it now.”
While the recent assessment is useful in planning for the future, projections are subject to change as biologists learn more. After all, an ecosystem is a complicated web, where one species may affect the fate of countless others, and a change in climate may affect a habitat in ways researchers have yet to understand.
“We haven’t seen enough climate change to understand how things will play out,” Whitman said. “We can concoct all the just-so stories about how things will happen, but they may not happen as we plan.”
In addition to Whitman, Walker and Vickery, authors of the assessment are Andrew Cutko of Maine Department of Agriculture, Phillip deMaynadier of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Sally Stockwell of Maine Audubon, and Robert Houston of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Funding for assessment was provided by the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and an anonymous donor.
To view the assessment, “Climate Change and Biodiversity in Maine: Vulnerability of Habitats and Priority Species,” visit www.manomet.org and search under publications.