Maine’s northern forests: Refuge in the midst of climate change

Proposed High Peaks Wilderness as seen from Maine's Appalachian Trail.

The Wilderness Society

Climate change is forcing many species to embark on a mass exodus out of their native habitats. Sometimes they’re able to find refuge in new areas that can support their biological needs, but sometimes there’s just nowhere to run.

Forests around the globe are disappearing in the face of a warming climate, and this is bad news for the woodland creatures that call them home. In the U.S., eastern forests are already experiencing a loss of plant species, fragmentation of landscapes and a decrease in biological diversity.

But what if we were able to preserve natural refuges that are resilient to the destructive effects of climate change? It turns out that these “climate change refuges” do exist, and they might just be some species’ best hope for survival.

Scientists with The Wilderness Society are embedded in Maine’s northern forests to ensure the protection of wild and intact ecosystems that will be relied upon as climate refuges in the future.

Scope of the High Peaks U.S. Fish and Wildlife project.

Northeast America, while the most populous region of our country, is also blanketed by approximately 26 million acres of vast, pristine forest. Ranging from the Adirondacks of upstate New York to the Appalachians of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, these wild forests clean our air and water, are home to myriad unique plant and animal species.

Our ecologists are have used extensive climate modeling surveys to identify northern Maine’s High Peaks National Wildlife Refuge as being exceptionally resilient to climate shifts. A true climate refuge.

Maine’s High Peaks yawns out over 230,000 acres of old-growth hardwood forests. Home to populations of golden eagle, North American moose, bobcat and lynx, this wildlife refuge provides crucial sanctuary to a host of threatened species. High Peaks is special because it connects large swaths of key habitat, preserving historic wildlife corridors that promote genetic diversity by allowing breeding populations to move freely over large territory.

Because this area is so inherently wild and diverse, it is often considered a living laboratory in which to study the effects of climate change.

Measuring High Peaks’ soil makeup, altitude, climate and hydrology, our ecologists believe this particular forest is better equipped to survive warming temperatures than other forests in the region. The geographic location of High Peaks, which is situated smack-dab between two elevations and unique ecosystems, endows it with Goldilocks-like properties.  Its location, in addition to its large intact size and varied plant life, make High Peaks an ideal place for forest species to adapt to a changing climate while still being able to traverse their natural migration corridors.

Climate change is currently threatening Maine's Bicknell's thrush. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One species that will rely on High Peaks to endure the assault of climate change is a songbird called the Bicknell’s thrush. This rare North American bird is currently seeing its breeding ground disappear as forest demographics shift. The Bicknell’s thrush relies on evergreen conifers, which flourish year-round, to breed, feed and survive. But as the climate warms and precipitation patterns change, these evergreens have been steadily succumbing to species of deciduous trees that shed their leaves seasonally, making large swaths of mountain-top forest unsuitable for the thrush and the insects it preys on.

Every acre of land counts when it comes to the survival of the Bicknell’s thrush because of its small population habitat area, which is restricted to forested areas in upstate New York and New England. If these forests were to change significantly, the bird would lose all of its mating and feeding grounds.

Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing the Bicknell’s thrush as a threatened or endangered species may be warranted. The best chance for its survival and ultimately its adaptation to a changing climate will depend upon places like the High Peaks.

Wilderness has many human, environmental and economic benefits, but in the coming years, these protected areas will be needed more than ever to provide a safe haven for species struggling to adapt to a warming world.

Because climate change (on the scale that scientists are forecasting) is unprecedented, The Wilderness Society is looking at ways that our precious wildlands can adapt. We are determined, using science and experience in the field, to ensure that these special places are protected.