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Climate alert! Naturalists see global warming hurting northern species

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Posted on February 1, 2018 |
By Emma Cotton



climate change Bigbullmoose LEAD.jpg
THE ICONIC VERMONT moose is at risk from pests and habitat decline brought on by global warming, but naturalists say humans can still take steps to save the environment. Photo credit/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

ADDISON — The changing climate is significantly affecting northern wildlife, nationally renowned naturalist Sue Morse recently told a gathering of 30 people in Addison. The Jericho resident told stories not just of the influence of warming in Vermont, but also gave first-hand accounts of changes in the Arctic, showing striking photos of both the environment’s natural beauty and the trauma it has endured.

“I want you to feel that, for every sobering story I tell with what seems to be a bad ending, my real purpose is to have us be continually inspired by this world that we live in,” she told the crowd at the Dead Creek Visitor Center. “Hopefully, when we leave here, two things will happen: We’ll be angry, and we’ll do something about it.”

The presentation called “Animals of the North: What Will Climate Change Mean for Them?” was sponsored by the Hannaford Career Center’s Natural Resource Management program. As Morse clicked past photo after photo, brown bear after lynx after snowshoe hare, the audience, which included members of the public and career center students, seemed to collectively understand what was at stake.

She showed photos of tall, bare whitebark pines ravaged by bark beetles in Wyoming, where she lived for 12 years while conducting research. The beetles, made more lethal at higher elevations by warming temperatures and decreased precipitation, can now reproduce at twice their typical rate.

“This is, in my lifetime, the worst thing I can imagine,” Morse said. “From a wildlife standpoint, there are lots of organisms, from Clark’s nutcracker, to squirrels, to grizzly bears, that rely on (the tree’s) nuts. This is the equivalent to the Vermont beechnut for these animals. It is so rich in fat and protein that this is a go-to food for these animals for winter.”

She stops on a photo of caribou. Globally, caribou populations have decreased by 60 percent. The decline is, in part, due to climate change: warming temperatures are interrupting their migration patterns, and they are being attacked by pests like mosquitos, which have become more pervasive in extended periods of warmth.

“This is what makes me angry,” Morse said. “How could we give up on this? How could we have even let this happen in the first place, and now that we know, what is the matter with us? That’s the way I feel.”

Morse, also the founder of Keeping Track, an organization that monitors the status of wildlife and habitat, has witnessed first-hand the fragmentation of the Arctic and its consequential loss of habitat for many species. She has met Inuit natives from all over Canada who say that finding a polar bear carcass is now routine where it used to be once-in-a-lifetime experience.

She also called attention to climate change’s effects on wildlife in the northeastern United States.

As average temperatures steadily rise, the population of winter ticks has significantly increased here, which has put an iconic Vermont animal at risk: the moose. Morse flashed to a photo of a moose that had recently died.

“I joined in on a necropsy of this young cow,” she said. “As a tracker, I pointed out to the group that this cow was walking, and then just suddenly tipped over. When she fell, she drove her face into the snowpack, and she never had the energy to pick it back out.”

The cow had died instantly, probably of a heart attack attributed to the 40,000 ticks covering her body.

“She was severely anemic, and that triggered a whole manner of other reactions in her body, and all of her body systems basically shut down,” Morse said.

As winters become milder, deer populations will increase, which will pose another danger to moose. The brain worm parasite is transferred from deer, who are unaffected by it, to moose. For the moose, the brain worm causes loss of coordination, emaciation, and ultimately, death. It can already be found in Addison County.

Moose are just one of several vulnerable species that lives in the southern border of the boreal forest, which exists in northern Vermont.

“Vermont is in a somewhat unique location in that it is a state that includes some of the southern habitats, as well as some of the northern habitats,” said Scott Darling, wildlife program manager at the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, in an interview.

He noted that fur-bearing species like pine marten and lynx are vulnerable to the affects of climate change. Both hunt and feed in deep snow. If less snow accumulates, it will be easier for other animals, like fishers, to outcompete them.

   RECENTLY, IT HAS become harder to find polar bears that look this healthy. While it was once rare to find a polar bear carcass, now Inuit natives come upon them routinely.

Photograph © Susan C. Morse

In central Vermont, brook trout populations have decreased due to hotter-than-usual summer days, Darling said. Climate change will also induce the onset of invasive plants.

“You’ll see a greater influence of oak, which already exists there, but sugar maples will be stressed more in that environment as the temperature warms,” he said. “It’s a systemic issue. We can think about individual species, but there’s a lot of unknowns about what happens when this system falls apart.”

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Despite a seemingly bleak outlook, neither Morse nor Darling have lost hope. Both say that habitat fragmentation is detrimental to the health of Vermont’s native wildlife, but that the Fish & Wildlife Department is developing plans to mitigate the harm.

Darling said the department is working on habitat conservation strategies that will enable species to move throughout the landscape as the climate changes.

“In particular, large forest blocks that are interconnected will allow species to move up in elevation, or northward, if they need to do that,” he said. “The Champlain Valley is highly fragmented, with small forest patches, but then you get up into the Green Mountains of Addison County, and you see forest blocks that are interconnected. Animals that can get there are able to climb to the highest elevations of Addison County and move up the chain of the Green Mountains. So maintaining the connectivity of the landscape connections is really, really important as a response to climate change.”

Darling encourages private landowners with large blocks of forest to talk with foresters and work with neighbors to develop a management plan. “They’re a part of the solution,” he said.

Private landowners can also get involved with the organization Staying Connected Initiative, which seeks to preserve forest connectivity in the Northeast. More information can be found at stayingconnectedinitiative.org. 

Morse expresses her optimism through her work and her organization.

“Keeping Track, in particular, believes that it’s really important that we have hope,” she said, “and that we steep ourselves in the beauty of this world around us, and that we convey that hope to our young people and inspire them to make change happen.”    SUE MORSE, FOUNDER of the Vermont organization Keeping Track, stands by an ice shelf in the high arctic wearing caribou mukluks that she made herself.

Photograph © Susan C. Morse

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