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No Ducking Climate Change Impacts to Prairie Pothole Wetlands

The mallard feeding at the local park.  The flock of northern shovelers passing overhead.  The nesting pair of blue-winged teal.  All are common ducks and all depend on the rich habitat of North America’s wetlands – habitat that may be affected by climate change.


The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) - named for its many glacial depressions, commonly referred to as potholes - is seasonally home to many wetland bird species.  The region is often referred to as North America’s “duck factory” because the potholes support more than 50 percent of the continent’s breeding waterfowl. South Dakota contains a large portion of the remaining wetlands in the PPR, which contribute significantly to annual production of wetland birds, including migratory waterfowl.

As European settlers moved into the PPR, more than half of its potholes were lost. Subsequent generations drained potholes at a rapid rate to create fields fit for agriculture.  The once plentiful prairie wetlands declined in number.

The establishment of many national wildlife refuges since the 1930s, and waterfowl production areas (WPAs) since the 1960s, has helped to preserve habitat as many of the PPR’s wetlands were drained.
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) works with partners like Ducks Unlimited to protect vital waterfowl habitat in the PPR by purchasing permanent easements from willing landowners protecting covered wetlands in perpetuity from draining, filling, or burning.

Equally important to restoring habitat is proper management of existing habitat, much of it on public lands. The National Wildlife Refuge System includes nearly 7,000 WPAs – many of them in the PPR -- that preserve vital wetlands and grasslands for countless nesting waterfowl and other wildlife.

To optimize conservation of the remaining prairie potholes -- especially on WPAs and refuges -- the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture and Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative (PPP LCC) funded development of high-resolution climate model projections to inform avian management in eastern South Dakota. The PPP LCC often funds projects to fill in scientific data gaps, adding value where it’s needed most.

In the study of climate change, general circulation models – which use physics and thermodynamic equations to model temperature, precipitation and other climate metrics – are used to develop projections of what the climate might be like in the future based on a number of assumptions.  Because these models are global in scale, their projections are at a resolution that may be of less value for wildlife management decision making.  To address the need for better resolution, climate modelers develop high-resolution climate model projections through a process called “down-scaling” and through the use of dynamical regional-climate models.

Watch video of the climate models here.

Down-scaling climate involves analysis of modern climate data to project future climate conditions, such as temperature and precipitation.  Dynamical regional-climate models, like general circulation models, use physics and thermodynamic equations to model temperature and precipitation, as well as many other climate metrics.   This approach is similar to that used by weather forecasters for a region.

With either approach, the goal is to offer useful information to inform the decisions of wildlife managers charged with safeguarding the remaining wetlands. Climate model results will be combined with hydrologic and vegetation models to show biologists how wetlands might change under climate change.  Results of the PPP LCC project will provide a finer picture of the effects of climate change on habitat and birds at the local level. 

This, in turn, will allow managers to better manage habitat today with the goal of conserving it for tomorrow given the onset of impacts from climate change.  For example, refuge managers at places like Waubay NWR and Wetland Management District in northeastern South Dakota will use these model results to determine where to focus future easement acquisitions.

“Wetlands are at risk from a number of factors and climate change may present an added challenge for wetland persistence,” said Cami Dixon, zone biologist for North and South Dakota.  “By understanding the potential impacts of climate change at finer resolutions we can develop strategies to foster resiliency and sustain wetlands.

“In the PPR of South Dakota,” Dixon adds, “we will employ these model results to plan for on-the-ground effects to habitat and the resulting unsown impacts to the wildlife, especially waterfowl. These models may prove helpful in prioritizing our acquisition and management efforts of wetlands."

The project will provide high resolution climate data for distribution via the U.S. Geological Survey Climate Data Portal. Fact sheets and scientific manuscripts on wetland, plant, and migrant bird responses to climate change will accompany the data to help inform decision makers.

Providing wetland managers with some semblance of how habitat will be impacted in the future is the primary purpose of the project. More than just a series of reports, the project will provide instruction that wildlife and habitat managers may use to apply the climate models to wildlife management by predicting habitat and species distributions.

By Jennifer Strickland

Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS. More photos available here

Re-posted from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Open Spaces blog. The USFWS will be posting new stories about climate impacts every day for 50 days. 



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