How climate change is impacting Pacific NW wildlife

April 20, 2017 - 4:29pm

As iconic NW species feel effects of climate change, citizens and scientists step in to help

Precipitation defines life in the Pacific Northwest. It's the reason our corner is a little greener, wetter and more Gore-Tex-clad than the rest of the country. It also prompts the migration, reproduction, pollination and hibernation of thousands of species that have evolved within the region.

As climate change transforms precipitation patterns, it transforms all life here. Scientists have linked the rise in average annual temperatures with a drop in snowfall, snowpack and stream flow, and predict that summer precipitation could decline by as much as 30 percent. As a result, the Northwest will see an increase in habitat loss, pests, disease and wildfire, all of which have profound implications for local wildlife.

The good news: Pacific Northwesterners have long worked together to take action on climate. In 1993, Portland became the first city to create a local action plan for cutting carbon. Just last year, Oregon became the first state to vote to phase out coal in favor of renewables.

Here are some of the Pacific Northwest's most iconic climate-impacted species, what's being done to help them and how you can take action.

Salmon

Salmon need cold, clean water to survive. Already struggling to cope with more than a century of dams, pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction, they are especially vulnerable during their spawning runs. Higher winter and earlier peak streamflows damage spawning nests and wash away eggs. Lower summer flows and warmer water temperatures create more favorable conditions for salmon diseases and parasites. Sockeye salmon are now migrating earlier, and warmer waters are likely to cause an increase of Chinook and sockeye salmon diseases in some river basins. In the winter, salmon, steelhead, and trout will face increased river flooding.

To protect salmon and mitigate against the effects of climate change, tribes, state agencies and conservation organizations are collaborating to restore the waterways that the fish rely on. Water and habitat improvement projects have already allowed salmon to bounce back in some areas, and are also creating jobs.

What you can do: You can improve salmons' chances of survival when they're most vulnerable by restoring their habitat. Find opportunities here.

Pika

American pikas — éclair-sized rabbit cousins known for their distinctive, squeak-toy-like calls — have already disappeared from parts of their range due to climate change. They prefer mountain slopes at elevations above 6,000 feet, where reduced snowpack can have a devastating effect on their ability to insulate themselves during the winter.

Pikas living in the Columbia Gorge dwell just 200 feet above sea level, making them the lowest-elevation pikas in the U.S. Scientists aim to discover where these "extreme" pikas are – and aren't – living in the Columbia Gorge, and to understand what factors may dictate their distribution.

What you can do: Citizen Science! Through Cascades Pika Watch, people can help scientists better understand changes in pika populations. Interested in joining? Fill out this form. 

Montane red fox

Toward the end of the last glaciation, a population of red fox retreated up the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, where they became a uniquely mountain-adapted subspecies called the Sierra Nevada red fox. As mountain fox habitat shrinks with reduced snowpack, it also becomes more accessible to coyotes, which kill foxes and compete with them for prey. In 2013, a coyote was recorded at an elevation of 6,165 feet on Mt. Hood, higher than any Sierra Nevada red fox in the area.

Little is known about montane fox populations. Throughout the Cascades, researchers are monitoring for the presence of fox and other carnivores to help government agencies make more wildlife-friendly land management decisions.

What you can do: Through the Oregon Zoo's Future for Wildlife program, we're helping conservation organizations study and better understand montane red fox and other carnivore populations. Find out how to help support projects like this.

Dungeness crab

As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the burning of fossils fuels, it becomes more acidic. Studies suggest that the increased acidity extends Dungeness crabs' vulnerable larval stage, reducing their chance of survival (the same is true for oysters). Warmer waters are also contributing to toxic algal blooms, which doesn't kill the crabs, but makes them inedible for humans. Dungeness crab is the highest revenue fishery in both Washington and Oregon.

Because Dungeness crabs use a broad range of habitats, researchers hope that they will continue to do well in some places even if they don't survive in others. Scientists continue to monitor ocean acidity levels and the spread of algal blooms.

What you can do: Household wastewater eventually makes its way to the ocean, where it can have a detrimental impact on already vulnerable species. You can also help keep toxins out of waterways by avoiding disposable plastics, and by making your own cleaning products. Get recipes here.

Cascades frog

The Cascades frog only lives at high elevations in California, Oregon and Washington, and can survive under deep snow. A combination of low winter snowpack and high summer temperatures have led to die-offs massive breeding failures. Scientists expect other northwest amphibians to be affected as well. More than half of the intermediate wetlands – which provide the best habitat for frogs and salamanders – are projected to convert to fleeting, fast-drying wetlands by 2080.

Biologists hope that reducing other pressures on amphibians – such as invasive predators and the loss of wetlands to development – will help frogs and salamanders better cope with climate change. Conservation organizations and wildlife officials are working together to recover some the regions' most imperiled amphibians and improve the quality of their remaining habitat.

What you can do: Citizen science! Put on some waders and help monitor amphibian egg masses by signing up here. 

Pollinators

Pollinators take environmental cues – including temperature, timing of precipitation and plant availability – to complete their life cycles. Warmer, drier summers and milder, wetter winters are expected to cause shifts in plant communities, the presence of invasive species and wildfires, all of which pollinators will be forced to cope with.

The Fender's blue, Taylor's checkerspot and Oregon silverspot are three Pacific Northwest butterflies already on the verge of extinction because of habitat loss. Scientists are closely monitoring how and if these species will be able to keep pace with their changing environment.

What you can do: Eliminating invasive weeds and including wildlife-friendly plants in your backyard or landscaping provides excellent food and shelter for pollinators and other species native to your area. Many native plants also thrive without the need for much care, saving water, energy, time and money. Find tips on wildlife-friendly landscaping.

The unknown

Scientists predict that if temperatures continue to rise at the current rate there will be catastrophic consequences to human systems, wildlife and their habitats. With decreasing snowpack, wolverines may have more difficulty finding suitable den sites. Hot, dry summers could alter the vegetation on shrub steppes to the point where sage-grouse will no longer tolerate them. Marine food webs could dramatically transform as predators from the south, such as Humboldt squid, seek cooler waters north.

The earth's climate is changing as a result of human activities that produce greenhouse gases. While it will take an unprecedented effort to control production of greenhouse gases, there are many actions that individuals, families and businesses can take that will collectively reduce climate impacts while providing a range of other benefits.

The information in this article draws on data from the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.