Defenders of Wildlife recently posted about a project they undertook to assess the sea-level rise threat to the lands within both the acquired boundary (the land that a refuge already owns) and the approved boundary (the land they are planning to acquire) of eight coastal refuges threatened with sea-level rise: Blackwater, Great White Heron, Laguna Atascosa and Lower Rio Grande Valley, Lower Suwannee, Cape Romain, St. Marks, and Savannah.
We found that the impact of sea-level rise will vary among the eight refuges we investigated. Four of the refuges could have less than 5% of their land area vulnerable, while two could lose more than 40% of their refuge lands by 2075. One of the highly impacted refuges, Blackwater NWR, may be able to keep vital habitat by buying new land on the north side, where areas of marsh will persist and new marsh will be created. Great White Heron NWR, on the other hand, could run out of land entirely; it could lose almost 90% of its current land, and three-quarters of the land it plans to acquire. That would mean the loss of nesting habitat for loggerhead and green sea turtles, as well as over 250 species of birds that call the islands of Great White Heron NWR home, including the refuge’s namesake.
Based on our findings, we’re offering several recommendations:
- Unless there is an immediate conservation need that justifies protecting a vulnerable parcel, or USFWS determines a parcel is important to allow for marsh habitats to transition or shift inland as sea levels rise, individual refuges should focus on acquiring land that is less vulnerable to sea-level rise.
- When a vulnerable parcel needs to be protected, USFWS should consider alternatives to land purchase, such as easements, which may be a more cost-effective way to provide protections in the short term.
- USFWS should alter approved refuge boundaries as appropriate to maximize long-term conservation benefits in the face of sea level rise. For instance, the area to the north of Blackwater NWR has wetlands that will outlast sea level rise, and moving the refuge boundary to include these would allow USFWS to protect more habitat for the long term.
We know that we face two enormous challenges as we try to protect wildlife and habitat into the future. First, climate change is posing new threats to species and altering landscapes, and in the case of coastal areas, taking some away entirely. And second, ongoing difficulties with the federal budget mean that taxpayer investment in land conservation is likely to be limited. But by understanding the effects of climate change, we can adjust our strategies to make the smartest possible investments for the future of our wildlife and the wild places they need to survive.