Natural areas support wildlife during a time of shifting weather patterns, and they also help with carbon sequestration. Protecting and creating habitat should be an integral part of our response to climate change.
This piece originally appeared in the spring 2020 edition of Xerces’ biannual publication Wings. Click to view the full spring 2020 issue.
In 1995, I had the considerable good fortune to participate in developing a search strategy for the Uncompahgre fritillary (Boloria acrocnema), a butterfly that lives only in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. That summer I hiked hundreds of miles in some of the world’s most beautiful alpine habitats to reach the places where the fritillary lived, north-facing slopes above twelve thousand feet (3,650 meters). At those high altitudes the fritillary caterpillars’ sole host plant—the aptly named snow willow—is kept palatable by the moisture from snow patches that melt throughout the summer. In addition to being a great job, this was my first real look at a species that was being impacted by what we then called global warming.
As far as I know, the Uncompahgre fritillary was the first species to be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act for which climate change was mentioned as being a factor in its endangerment (although it was referred to in the listing documents as “adverse climatic conditions”).
The San Juan Mountains in Colorado include dozens of peaks higher than twelve thousand feet (3,650 meters), which support high-altitude habitats and species that are now threatened by climate change. Photograph by the Bureau of Land Management.
It makes sense, of course, that a species that lives only where snow persists year-round would be impacted by climate change. What I did not realize at the time was that over the next quarter of a century the climate crisis would become one of the primary driving forces behind species decline everywhere. Now it is not just high-mountain endemics that are impacted, but ultimately all living organisms: species in prairies and meadows, species in our rivers and streams, species that live with us in cities and towns. The loss of biodiversity is being accelerated by changes in climate, and we must act now if we hope to save many important species—including humans—from calamity.
Of course, climate change is not the only threat, and we still need to focus on protecting and restoring habitat, eliminating (or at least minimizing) pesticide use, better managing wild life diseases, and reducing the light pollution that is disruptive for nocturnal species. Even if, however, we were able to succeed at all of that and yet were to ignore climate change, we would be solving only part of the problem.
A modeling study that looked at distributions of different invertebrates under various climate change scenarios helps illustrate the importance of tackling climate as part of an invertebrate conservation agenda. With warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, 6 percent of invertebrates are estimated to lose at least 50 percent of their ranges; this increases to 18 percent of invertebrates with 2°C of warming and 49 percent of invertebrates with 3.2°C. The threat is unmistakable: if we do not address climate change, nearly half of all invertebrates could lose half of their ranges. This would not be bad just for the invertebrates, it would be catastrophic for the plants that depend on them for pollination, as well as for those birds, fish, and other animals that rely on insects and other invertebrates as food.
The Uncompahgre fritillary (Boloria acrocnema) lives in areas where there is year-round snow to sustain the host plant that its caterpillars eat. Photograph by the Xerces Society / Scott Black.
So how do we address this issue? First, it is imperative that we act now. Scientists have stressed that we have a limited window of opportunity—likely no more than a few decades—to deal with the climate crisis. Fortunately, there is much we can do, even individually, to limit carbon outputs, a vital part of any solution. Cut back on fossil fuel use by driving and flying less, and try to include as much renewable energy in heating and lighting buildings as possible. (Many utilities have programs through which you can purchase renewable energy.) Food choices are also important. Minimizing animal products, buying organic food (which often has a lower carbon footprint because no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were used), choosing local sources to reduce long-distance shipping, and avoiding food waste are all important steps. Individuals, of course, cannot do it all. We need to compel real government action by advocating for strong policies and electing people who will push for sustained climate efforts at all levels.
Beyond lowering your carbon footprint, there is a lot that you can do at your home, around your farm, or in your local park or natural area. Nature-based climate solutions involve actions that protect and enhance nature to help ecosystems and a broad diversity of creatures adapt to a changing climate. These solutions also help to mitigate climate change by increasing the capture and long-term storage of carbon in plants and in the soil. They can range from simply protecting as much of the natural landscape as possible to restoring and enhancing ecosystems such as forests, but also on farms, along roadsides, and in towns and cities. Trees are an essential part of this solution, but so are native prairie and meadow areas, which are also important for carbon capture and which support biodiversity that is found nowhere else. The benefits of implementing nature-based climate solutions are significant. In addition to supporting wildlife, recent research suggests that natural climate solutions can account for 30 percent of the carbon sequestration needed to limit warming to 2°C by the end of the century.
The great thing about these nature-based solutions is that they can be undertaken anywhere by anyone. Of course, the protection and restoration of larger landscapes is going to have a big impact, but even making your yard a haven for wildlife will contribute. By using climate-smart native plants, eliminating pesticides, and providing nest sites for bees and host plants for butterflies you can have a very positive effect. And if you work with neighbors or your local park you can create even larger benefits.
Wildlife can live side by side with dense urban development, meaning that even small city plots can provide valuable habitat for invertebrates and other creatures. Photograph by Matthew Shepherd.
Wildlife corridors are an important feature of a nature-based solution. In the face of a changing climate, insects need to move across the landscape to find new nesting and food resources, and there is already evidence that butterflies are shifting ranges in response to climate change. Linear habitats, such as field borders, hedgerows, tree-lined roadways, and green lanes, can act as corridors for pollinators, and thus may be particularly valuable in aiding dispersal. A recent study by the University of Salzburg’s Jan Christian Habel and colleagues found that when corridors contain high-quality habitat they can be beneficial for specialist butterflies, and the study also suggested that butterflies preferred such corridors to surrounding lands of lower quality. And it is not just terrestrial insects that benefit from such habitat; scientists at the University of California at Santa Cruz found that restoring riparian corridors improves conditions for a variety of aquatic invertebrates, including stoneflies, mayflies, and caddisflies, three significant insect groups that live in streams.
This too is something in which everyone can do their part. Linking habitat areas by working with neighbors and your local or state transportation departments to add habitat along roadways brings the benefits of larger scale, and helps make it possible for species to move from one place to another as the climate changes.
Xerces recently produced a series of guides to climate-smart habitat restoration and management in cities and towns, roadsides, natural areas, and farms. Although these fact sheets were written for California and some content is specific for that state, the strategies they describe can be implemented anywhere. We also have plant guides and planting resources for the United States and Canada that can help you make your garden, park, farm, or roadside a haven for insects, and thus part of the climate solution we need.
Many farmers are either caring for or creating habitat features such as hedgerows to support wildlife on their land. Such plantings can also play a role in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Photograph by the Xerces Society / Jessa Kay Cruz.
The added benefit of these nature-based strategies is that you will immediately make a difference for local biodiversity, benefiting fireflies, bees, butterflies, birds, and so much more. There is a body of evidence that the more biodiverse a system is, the better it will handle changes in climate, so this approach offers a win-win. Even aquatic species will benefit, thanks both to there being fewer impervious surfaces and to a reduction in pesticides and other toxic pollutants entering local creeks and ponds. The science is clear: climate change and the loss of biodiversity are interlinked, and coupling efforts at climate mitigation with ecosystem-based approaches is essential. It is impossible to address the loss of biodiversity without addressing climate change, but equally impossible to tackle the impacts of climate change without working to protect and enhance biodiversity.
Xerces is committed to protecting invertebrate diversity from all threats, including climate change. We are working to ensure that our species-protection efforts and our restoration and management guidance take into account future climate scenarios, so that we can implement long-term solutions that enhance biodiversity. Xerces is also doing our part by lowering our own organizational carbon footprint. By endeavoring to understand our carbon output, getting rid of nonessential plane and car travel, and serving only plant-based foods at events going forward, Xerces hopes to set an example for other organizations and businesses. If we all work together, I believe we can make a difference by striving to maintain biodiversity as we address the threat of a changing climate.
Read the entire spring 2020 issue of our magazine, Wings: Essays on Invertebrate Conservation
Find other articles on the Xerces blog related to climate change.