Coconino Voices: In northern Arizona, climate change will matter to wildlife

Arizona Daily Sun (Original) Posted January 9, 2019 by Clare Aslan

In their newest impact assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the warming we will experience within the next 12 years will cause substantial problems for human communities, ecosystems, and economies. Significant changes aren’t as far away as we once thought.

We who live in northern Arizona know we are incredibly fortunate, surrounded by forests and canyons of deep color, topped with clear, crisp blue skies and “more sun than Florida and more snow than Denver.”

But our beautiful ecosystems are at risk, under these new projections. Here in Flagstaff, we are poised to experience particularly strong effects from climate change.

There are several reasons. One of them is Arizona’s immensely diverse topography, with landscapes ranging from desert to mixed conifer over a remarkably short distance. As temperatures change, species will move up or downslope to track the temperatures they require, with the result that we can expect significant changes in our forests, riparian areas, and valued natural sites. Additionally, one of the most significant changes in this region will be reduced precipitation: increased heat and drought means our forests will dry out faster than in the past, elevating wildfire risk substantially. Winters like 2017-18, with its low and late snowfall, give us a sense of these changes, and an idea of their impact.

Our hard-working public lands managers understand the risks of drought and warming, and closures of the forest this past summer helped to keep our wildfire incidence low, but it made it tough to take advantage of the gorgeous landscapes we call home.

So, what does all this mean for our wildlife? Whether you’re a hunter, a birder, an outdoor adventurer, a tourism small business owner, or a nature lover, wildlife are a precious resource in Arizona. We all thrill to the occasional glimpse of a coyote on a morning jog, tracks of mountain lions next to a chilly mountain stream, or the piercing white head of a bald eagle perching in the trees above our hiking trails.

Climate change in northern Arizona fundamentally amounts to warmer and drier summers and winters, reduced snowpack, a lower water table, and increased fire risk. For wildlife, this means dry springs and watering holes, as we saw across the region this past spring and summer. This means increased risk of stand-replacing fires, where old, mature trees are lost and burned sites are subject to erosion and other post-fire impacts before recovery is possible. Wildlife are likely to move up in elevation and further north and to abandon reliable watering and nesting sites. Recent research has found that some of our most charismatic species (including bighorn sheep, mule deer, and mountain lions) will be affected.

So, what should we do? Climate change responses are typically lumped into two categories: mitigation and adaptation.

Mitigation involves attempting to remove greenhouse gases to reduce future warming. Adaptation involves helping human or natural systems adapt and adjust to existing warming trends.

Some warming is going to happen, no matter what: even if we immediately reduce greenhouse gas outputs, temperatures will continue to rise by a global average of 1.1 degrees F. This seems small, but it’s important to remember that it’s an average — with some locations warming more or faster than others. Among other things, this will mean lower snowpack during each winter, reducing water availability and increasing wildfire.

We as wildlife enthusiasts can reduce our personal impacts on forests and ecosystems by taking great care to avoid fire ignitions and damage to water sources. We can educate others and advocate for protection of natural water sources and robust fire management. And we can elect representatives who will take climate change seriously and invest in multi-pronged mitigation and adaptation solutions.

It’s time to actively protect the species we love, and that will require engagement and determination.

Clare Aslan is associate director of the Landscape Conservation Initiative and and an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University.