Thursday, October 15, 2009

Climate Change and Wildlife Habitat

This post is part of an October 15, 2009 Blog Action Day exercise in which thousands of bloggers are writing about a single topic, climate change, within the context of their site’s focus area. Our message here is simple: Individuals need to consider their local environment as wildlife habitat and take action to protect and improve it, thereby reducing the stresses on plant and animal populations that will come with climate change.

We at Habitat Home find the prospect of the gradual warming of the global environment over the next century to be sufficiently likely to justify careful study and consideration. But the hysteria or “crisis” promoted by the global warming “movement” is disturbing. The focus needs to shift from one of promulgating fear and guilt over climate change, or demanding ever more control (with cost a relatively unimportant criterion) to reduce or stop it, to a focus of how we can manage or even adapt to that change as it occurs. Yes, we need to consider and invest in alternate energy sources, and yes, we may need to adjust our lifestyles. But these things are likely to happen anyway as the fossil fuels are depleted, the economics of energy shift, the global economy becomes more real, and the growth of the human population stabilizes. There will be “change we can believe in.” But unlike the euphoria of the 2008 U.S. presidential election and its instant gratification, changes in global environments and the behavior of populations, societies and economies are not going to change overnight, and certainly not by some local or even multi-national sets of legislation or treaties. No matter how good we may feel about ourselves for short term “accomplishments” in the form of promises or even actual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric carbon dioxide will continue to increase and climate changes will continue to loom on the long term calendar. Perhaps we can delay the effects by a few years over the next century, but such a delay may not be very significant.

Instead, or at least in tandem to the hysteria, what is needed is some long range thinking, research, and action to prepare our environments in all aspects (natural, societal, economic) for the likely climate changes that are going to occur. While we may not be able to reduce those changes very much, we can significantly reduce the stresses that those changes bring.

Habitat Home is all about the natural environment and a very local ecosystem of twenty acres. But those twenty acres are part of a larger collection of plant and animal habitat pockets, corridors and reserves scattered within the U.S. Midwest and the state of Illinois. With the expansion of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, the spread of the population westward, the acquisition and distribution of land ownership, and the development of industry, agriculture and urban areas, the natural areas of Illinois have already experienced tremendous and (certainly to plants and animals) very stressful change over the past 200 years. Over the next 100 years, climate change may well replace direct human activity as the greatest threat to plant and animal species and their habitats. In fact, effects of climate change are already being observed. The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) issued an extensive report in June, 2009 – “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” – which summarizes results of current research and predicted impacts for the U.S. Of particular interest to this blog are the sections on the U.S. Midwest region and on Ecosystems. The report notes examples of regional and ecosystem changes that have already been occurring over the past few decades, such as “large-scale shifts have occurred in the ranges of species and the timing of the seasons and animal migration, and are very likely to continue.”

It behooves us, both collectively and individually, to do what we can to anticipate and reduce the stresses brought by these changes in ecosystems by conserving, protecting, and nurturing the natural features of any areas that we control or affect.

What can we do? Any more, we seem to first look to the government. But the list of common or “public” issues for which control is given to (or taken by?) various levels of government is growing, seemingly exponentially. Even before the recent economic downturn governments have reduced their commitments to the acquisition, development and maintenance of natural areas. Indeed, the looming dreams and resulting costs of the growing entitlement state will likely swamp any ability to support natural areas at the levels we became accustomed to in the 20th century. State and local parks and preserves are less able to maintain the areas they already have as funding is cut and managers are given other priorities. Another type of government action, and one that all governments love, is to enact legislation and regulation, especially when there are no direct costs or where costs can be passed along to someone else. Such efforts are often counterproductive and are rife with unintended consequences. We saw this first-hand four years ago when Champaign County tried to institute new zoning regulations aimed specifically at reducing rural residential development, and purportedly protecting natural resources. As we pointed out in public hearings, these regulations would have exactly the opposite effect as that intended with respect to conserving natural areas. Not only did the proposals specifically exempt agricultural uses from any of the so-called conservation measures, they reduced the ability of individual landowners to implement well-intentioned management practices they might undertake. Two multi-year efforts to enact such regulations fortunately were defeated by the County Board.

So where can we turn for help? The most effective answer is for us - residential and corporate landowners, farmers, etc. - to educate ourselves about the natural characteristics of our properties, and how those characteristics provide habitat for plants, insects and animals. Look around and notice the plants, insects, birds, mammals and fish with which you are sharing the land and water. Pick up and read some of the books listed in the right sidebar, or any of numerous other publications on the nature and preservation of habitats. You can easily learn to intentionally design and implement conservation, restoration and protection practices that will enhance habitats. The added cost is often zero! Plant native species, landscape with an eye toward beneficial shrubs, trees and plant communities, avoid chemicals or use them only sparingly for specific targets, consider the effects of your pets. Not only will such activity benefit your property immediately, it will increase the amount and quality of habitats thereby reducing the stresses on plant and animal populations that will inevitably occur as climates gradually change through the century.

Join Habitat Home in celebrating the natural world we experience all around us, and in finding joy in working toward being good stewards and doing the right thing!

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