Workshops Provide Managers with Tools for Climate Change Adaptation

With support from the Great Northern and North Pacific LCCs, the Pacific Northwest Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment team organized four one-day climate adaptation workshops during 2012. Two of the workshops were held in the Great Northern geographic area, the Pioneer Mountains – Craters of the Moon landscape and the Columbia Plateau landscape. The objectives of the workshops were to understand 1) how the datasets and products generated by the Vulnerability Assessment could be used to facilitate on-the-ground climate adaptation planning, and 2) how climate data products could be made more useful for managers.

Each workshop focused on the specific climatic changes expected for, and the ecosystems and species specific to, each landscape. Nonetheless, the workshops all included the following elements:

  • An overview of the Vulnerability Assessment and its products
  • A presentation of projected changes in climate, climate-driven changes in vegetation types, plant species, and wildlife species
  • The development of conceptual models of how the projected changes would impact selected conservation features and management objectives
  • The identification of intervention points and potential climate adaptation actions
  • A discussion of the challenges of and opportunities for local climate-adaption planning

image of the Pioneer Mountains - Craters of the Moon landscape Pioneer Mountains - Craters of the Moon landscape. Photo courtesy of Lava Lake Institute for Science and Conservation 

Pioneer Mountains - Craters of the Moon Landscape

Location of Pioneer Mountains-Craters of the Moon landscapeLocation of Pioneer Mountains – Craters of the Moon landscape in south-central Idaho

The Pioneer Mountains – Craters of the Moon landscape in south-central Idaho, overlaps three ecoregions, providing an environment diverse in plant communities, wildlife habitat, land uses, and elevation. Projected changes for this century in the timing and amount of precipitation, as well as increasing temperatures, could have a range of potential climate impacts: from changes in grazing and agricultural practices, to increases in wildfire frequency and risk of cheatgrass invasion, to changes in the elevational range of trees such as whitebark pine and aspen.

This workshop was organized with the help of Lava Lake Institute for Science and Conservation and held in Hailey, Idaho. Over twenty participants represented federal and state resource agencies as well as conservation NGO’s. The participants decided to focus on three management targets—native sagebrush communities, aspen and whitebark pine populations, and stream flow. A variety of potential intervention points—i.e., places where management actions could incorporate an understanding of projected climate change—were identified and will be included in a final workshop report.

Columbia Plateau Landscape

Location of Columbia Plateau landscapeLocation of Columbia Plateau landscape in eastern Washington and parts of Idaho and Oregon

The Columbia Plateau landscape includes most of eastern Washington as well as parts of Idaho and Oregon. The majority of native shrub-steppe and grassland habitat in the area has been converted to agriculture, and much of the remaining habitat is heavily impacted by over-grazing, non-native grasses, and an altered fire regime. Projected increases in temperature and a change in the seasonality of precipitation are likely to threaten native shrub-steppe habitat and the sagebrush-dependent species that live there—including sharp-tailed and sage grouse, sage and Brewer’s sparrows, and the Washington ground squirrel.

This workshop, held at Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, was organized with the help of The Nature Conservancy and relied on the ongoing planning efforts made by the Arid Lands Initiative. More than a dozen participants from federal and state agencies, and NGOs, identified intervention points for two management targets—depressional wetlands and shrub steppe communities. A particular focus of this workshop was ways to incorporate climate-change projections into spatial conservation planning.

Knowledge Gained from Workshops

Some examples of recommendations for climate-change adaptation in these two landscapes include:

  • Monitor/improve understanding of how climate change will impact agricultural production, and subsequently habitat conversion and water withdrawals (both landscapes)
  • Modernizing the grazing permitting process to benefit sage grouse habitat (Pioneers-Craters)
  • Monitor/improve understanding of how precipitation and evapotranspiration affect depressional wetlands (Columbia Plateau)

Many of the conservation actions identified are already being done by managers, however the specific places and priorities of these actions are likely to be affected by climate change.

Understanding and managing for uncertainty remains perhaps the most challenging aspect of climate-adaptation planning. Climate projections for all case study regions showed some level of variability, especially in precipitation. In addition, the projected changes for vertebrates, tree species, and vegetation systems also showed significant variability. In particular, different types of models are likely to provide different projections of the future. Managers need help interpreting what these various projections mean and how they can still inform planning and action, despite potential model disagreement. Creating narrative scenarios of a variety of different potential futures may be one way of helping managers understand and communicate divergent model results.

Participants repeatedly highlighted several questions for which they wanted answers:

  • How will climate change interact with existing threats such as invasive species and fire regimes?
  • How will specific climate variables impact key components of ecological systems?
  • Which species will likely move into a particular management area?

Moses Coulee on the Columbia Plateau in eastern Washington  The Columbia Plateau in eastern Washington. Photo courtesy of Josh Lawler

Next Steps

With feedback from the workshop participants, the Pacific Northwest Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment team continues to work on datasets and products that will be made available online. These will include:

  • Climate Sensitivity Database - now completed for 205 species and 49 ecological systems; view at climatechangesensitivity.org
  • Habitat Suitability Models - historical and future climate suitability for 200 terrestrial animals, 11 tree species, and 20-50 ecosystem types; available in September 2013 at climatevulnerability.org
  • Species Population Models - spatially explicit modeling of 12 focal species; available in January 2014 at climatevulnerability.org
Participants at one of the workshops. Photo courtesy of Julia Michalak

This article was contributed by Josh Lawler - University of Washington, John Withey - Florida International University, and Julia Michalak - University of Washington. Josh works with the Pacific Northwest Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, which is a collaboration of The Nature Conservancy, University of Washington, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Idaho Fish and Game, US Geological Survey, and National Wildlife Federation.

The goal of the assessment is to produce data and models that will help natural resource managers and policy makers plan for climate change in the Pacific Northwestern U.S. The assessment includes downscaling climate-change projections, projecting changes in vegetation, modeling potential shifts in animal species distributions, building a climate-sensitivity database, developing multiple indices of vulnerability for species and landscapes, identifying potential climate refugia and barriers to climate-driven movements, and working with managers to develop adaptation strategies to address climate change.

The assessment is in the third of four years and has been funded by the Great Northern and North Pacific LCCs, USGS National Wildlife Climate Change Science Center, USGS Northwest Climate Science Center, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, and University of Washington. The project is lead by Josh Lawler (University of Washington), Elizabeth Gray (The Nature Conservancy), Bruce Thompson (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife), Mike Scott (USGS and University of Idaho, emeritus), and Sarah Shafer (USGS). The LCC-funded workshops have been organized and lead by Julia Michalak (University of Washington) and John Withey (Florida International University).