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Wildlife service plans for a warmer world

US interior department seeks ways to save species threatened by climate change.

Climate change threatens some 200 bird species in the United States, especially marine birds. Credit: S. KAZLOWSKI/NATUREPL.COM

Akikikis are small birds with limber tongues that are adept at pulling insects from the crevices in tree bark. The olive-and-white birds are also headed towards extinction. Earlier this month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the akikiki as endangered and warned that global warming may hasten its disappearance by prompting the spread of avian malaria.

The akikiki is just one of more than 200 birds in the United States threatened by climate change, according to a report issued last week by the US Department of the Interior, which oversees the USFWS. Called The State of the Birds: 2010 Report on Climate Change, it is one of several steps recently taken by the administration of President Barack Obama to assess how climate change is affecting wildlife and to find ways of lessening its impact. "For too long, in my view, we have stood idle as the climate-change crisis has grown," says Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior department. Mike Daulton, legislative director of the National Audubon Society in New York City, agrees. "We are getting a late start," he says.

The report, a collaboration between the USFWS, the US Geological Survey, academics and a collection of environmental and wildlife groups, quantified the vulnerability of each species on the basis of its breeding behaviour, habitat, migratory pattern and ecological niche. George Wallace, vice-president for oceans and islands at the American Bird Conservancy in The Plains, Virginia, says the report shows that "we need to consider climate change as we continue conservation work into the future".

Climate change will magnify already existing threats to birds, says Kenneth Rosenberg from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. Every habitat will be disrupted by the warming climate, but ocean birds are the most vulnerable to the disruption, with all 67 species especially at risk because they depend on a rapidly changing marine ecosystem, according to the report. And island birds, particularly those in Hawaii, will face increasing rates of avian malaria if the warming climate allows mosquitoes to spread to higher mountain zones.

The USFWS this month added the akikiki and another bird from the Hawaiian island of Kauai to its endangered-species list. Also joining the list is a picture-wing fly and 45 plant species from Kauai. Because they are all endemic to the island, climate change poses a special risk to them, according to the wildlife service.

Last month, Salazar issued an order marshalling the forces of the interior department to study climate impacts on wildlife, and earlier this month the department opened a Climate Science Center in Anchorage, Alaska, the first of eight planned around the nation. Information from those centres about climate's effects and ways to lessen them will feed into a network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, which will help to coordinate regional climate-adaptation efforts by federal and state governments and private landowners.

"It's a daunting task for a refuge manager sitting on the eastern shore of Maryland to understand what climate change means for the Chesapeake," says Paul Schmidt, USFWS assistant director for migratory birds. "We must scale down those big climate models to help the manager on the ground."

Meanwhile, wildlife managers are taking several approaches to counteract the effects of climate change. In Hawaii, for example, one tactic to save rare birds involves keeping large mammals out of sensitive areas. This prevents the animals from trampling the ground, which destroys habitat and also creates water-filled hollows where mosquitoes can breed.

Environmental groups have charged that the previous administration of George W. Bush ignored climate change and its effects. But Paul Hoffman, who served as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks under Bush, says it would be wrong to suggest that officials ignored the science. "Quite often, the scientists weren't in agreement about the problem and what the solution ought to be," he adds.

But the Obama administration's first budget reflects a change in priorities. For fiscal year 2010, it provided US$25 million for Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and $15 million for Climate Science Centers. "It went from zero to $40 million in one year," Schmidt says. Steve Holmer of the American Bird Conservancy calls these efforts "a pretty impressive systematic approach across the board".


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State of the Birds report

US Department of the Interior

US Fish & Wildlife Service

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Fang, J. Wildlife service plans for a warmer world. Nature 464, 332 (2010).

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