Ecologist Wendy Loya helps agencies plan for future change

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo by David Spencer, Courtesy FWS.

Alaska is ground zero for global warming. Temperatures here are rising faster than anywhere else in the world, and the kinds of things scientists have been warning about for years — hotter and drier summers, more wild fires, insect outbreaks, and unusual weather patterns — are already posing some unprecedented threats for the state’s natural resources.

Some fluctuation in temperature is normal, as is fire, and other natural disturbances. But, when changes happen too fast or exceed conditions that were previously considered extreme, plants and animals may be unable to adapt and whole populations of species could go extinct.

Wild Science

Welcome to Wild Science, our newest feature highlighting Wilderness Society scientists and their research.

One way to prevent climate-induced extinction is to create the best possible conditions for species to survive. Policy makers call this strategy “adaptation,” but few have taken the steps needed to move the idea from concept to on-the-ground action.

That’s where Wilderness Society ecologist Wendy Loya and climate change analyst Brendan O’Brien’s work comes into play.

When Loya started working with The Wilderness Society in Anchorage three years ago, she understood that there was plenty of good science to explain how our changing climate is impacting ecosystems in Alaska. But that science wasn’t always applied to resource management decisions or incorporated into plans for national parks, wildlife refuges, and other wilderness lands.

Wilderness Society ecologist Wendy Loya observing walrus, a species threatened by climate change.  With an eye toward fixing that, Loya, working in partnership with the University of Alaska Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning (SNAP) program,  has helped to make a series of maps and data describing future temperature and precipitation scenarios across Alaska more accessible to federal resource management agencies.

Now, by combining this information with other known variables, Loya and O'Brien are projecting how future changes in growing season length, water availability, frequency of fires, and the movement of plant and animal species might alter Alaska’s wildlands.

The information, while not a complete picture of future conditions, is enough to help land managers make decisions about the use and management of Alaska’s public lands in the face of climate change.

For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not at first considered climate change in its analysis of the impacts of a proposed land exchange in Alaska’s Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The exchange could open a portion of the refuge to oil and gas development, placing significant new demands on water resources, disrupting habitat, and impacting wildlife and air quality. With the climate information provided by Loya and her colleagues, however, the agency will be able to evaluate the impacts of the proposed project on refuge resources in the context of future climate conditions, which include warmer and drier conditions, more fires, and shifting vegetation.

Beaver Creek in Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.Loya’s work is significant because our national parks, forests, and refuges offer some of the best — and sometimes the only — habitat for species that is free from human created stressors. Because wildlife is already under stress from climate change, these places will be important for helping species adapt without any additional human impacts.

Our public lands can buffer wildlife from the impacts of climate change and provide space for species to migrate as habitats shift within the landscape. How well these lands are managed will largely determine how well species can weather the impacts of climate change.

Many of Alaska’s wildlife refuges are in the process of revising their management plans, and Loya’s work will help these refuges incorporate the most current climate change information into the documents that will guide their management for decades to come, thus helping to ensure that Alaska’s still intact and healthy ecosystems will remain functional even in the face of climate change.

Understanding what changes are coming is the first step. Implementing a management plan that accounts for these changes is next. It will also be important to continue research and monitoring so we can learn more about climate change and how ecosystems will react, and continue to refine land management strategies to ensure that climate-stressed wildlife will be given the best possible chance to adapt to a warming world.

Click here to learn more about Wendy Loya’s work.

Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo by David Spencer, Courtesy FWS.

Wilderness Society ecologist Wendy Loya observing walrus, a species threatened by climate change.
Beaver Creek in Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.