Climate Change and Wilderness Areas

This installment of our Wilderness Discussion Series is hosted by Nicole Wooten.  Every month we're highlighting a significant wilderness management issue, and we want to hear your thoughts.  Read on below and join in the conversation by posting comments on this page, commenting on our Facebook page, or lending your two cents on our Wilderness Connect discussion page (Wilderness Connect membership required).

Climate change is altering all ecosystems, even those that are legally not supposed to change.  The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined a wilderness area as one that is “untrammeled by man” and that is managed “to preserve its natural conditions” (Section 2c of the Wilderness Act).  International collaborations like the Paris Agreement are actively working to mitigate the changes but, in the meantime, even wilderness areas cannot remain untouched.

The most iconic example of climate change effects may be most evident in areas with glacial features like Glacier Park in MT, whose count of 150 glaciers in 1910 is now down to 25, and may reach zero by 2044 (Wines, 2014).  Each wilderness area in the world is experiencing subtle and not-so-subtle shifts.  Temperatures are changing.  Desertification is on the rise.  More extreme weather events are happening every year.  Weather patterns are shifting, which means less predictable precipitation and winds.

Wildlife and flora are responding to the changes too, by making corresponding changes in their ranges and habits.  In temperate regions, species are generally predicted to move upwards in elevation toward the poles, and towards northern-facing slopes.

How can managers adapt to global changes?  Larger partnerships are being formed across landscapes.  Land conservation is also being approached differently.  Connectivity—or the level of connectedness among protected areas—has quickly risen to the same degree of popular awareness as biodiversity. 

In light of climate change, connectivity is important because it provides a way for species to move as the land around them changes.  One implementation of connectivity in and near wilderness areas is through “wildlife migration corridors.”  These are often thin strips of land that run between one protected area and another.  Though not usually big enough for long-term habitat, corridors provide a path for wildlife to use to relocate.  This is a main focus of the “rewilding” movement (Fraser, 2010).  Creating a network of these corridors has the potential to revitalize wilderness wildlife populations, especially for large predators.

Another way that wilderness managers are planning for climate change is through a philosophy called “saving the stage.”  First coined in 2010 in a paper by Mark Anderson*, the phrase refers to the practice of protecting areas where flora and fauna—the actors—will likely live in the future.  Those areas can be prioritized based on geographic and physical conditions that tend to reflect high areas of biodiversity now.

Climate change is a global challenge.  Wilderness managers everywhere can benefit through sharing mitigation techniques, brainstorming practical solutions, and discussing long-term strategies.

*Note: a similar paper was published during the same year by Paul Beier, with different phrasing but similar concepts.  Both are credited with forming this concept.  

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