A changing Northwest climate makes habitat connectivity even more critical

A changing Northwest climate makes habitat connectivity even more critical

Keiko Betcher / Aug 25, 2020 / Climate Change, Connecting Habitat, Protecting Wildlands, Restoring Wildlife

Protecting, connecting and restoring wildlands and wildlife to keep the Northwest wild and resilient in the face of climate change

By Keiko Betcher, Communications and Outreach Associate

Since our founding in 1989, Conservation Northwest’s mission has always been to keep the Northwest wild. We’re working toward our long-standing vision of large, connected landscapes that support healthy populations of native wildlife and are safeguarded for future generations. And as the climate changes, this vision, along with our focus on habitat connectivity, has become increasingly important to keep the Northwest not only wild, but resilient.

This forest on the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area burned during the 2015 Okanogan fire. The right side was treated with thinning and prescribed burning. Photo: WDFW

Research points to natural solutions, such as protecting old-growth forests and restoring floodplains, as one of the most effective ways to sequester and store carbon, helping to mitigate climate change impacts. In fact, studies suggest natural solutions can offer more than 30 percent of mitigation needed to keep global temperatures from rising by 2°C—which scientists have identified as the threshold before climate change impacts become “catastrophic”.

Alongside mitigating climate change impacts where possible, our region must also prepare to adapt to the inevitable changes a new climate brings. Natural solutions such as habitat connectivity and watershed restoration can also help communities and fish and wildlife species adjust to shifts in their environments.

Connectivity for wildlife has always been a cornerstone of our work. And through our programs to protect, connect and restore wildlife and wildlands from the Washington Coast to the British Columbia Rockies, we’re increasing opportunities for and prioritizing the use of natural solutions so that the Northwest can have a thriving and resilient future for all, especially communities facing climate injustice and immediate climate change impacts.

Below are examples of how our programs—under the categories of Protecting Wildlands, Connecting Habitat and Restoring Wildllife—advance objectives for climate mitigation and adaptation in the Pacific Northwest.

Protecting wildlands to sequester and store carbon

There are many ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change, largely including natural climate solutions—in other words, protecting nature to let it do its thing. One of the best ways to sequester carbon is by preserving the heart of the Northwest: our ancient forests.

Old growth in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Photo Brett Baunton

One study found the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest store the most carbon out of nearly all ecosystems on earth, acre for acre. And a quarter of Washington and Oregon’s combined yearly fossil fuel emissions are already stored in Pacific Northwest forests. According to this study on natural solutions in the U.S., more than two-thirds of forests that can still be protected from development or land-use conversion exist in the South and Pacific Northwest. Other studies have found the carbon storage capacity of Northwest forests to be even greater than tropical forests, and protecting these “high-value” forests from logging would be equivalent to stopping six to eight years of regional fossil fuel emissions. In addition to protecting existing older forests, restoring second growth for both habitat complexity and larger trees and managing state and private forests for longer rotations and less intensive harvest sequesters more carbon.

Part of our efforts protecting wildlands, our policy work on climate legislation is geared towards ensuring carbon pricing legislation includes using some funds from taxing and capping carbon emissions to create financial incentives for private landowners to restore older forests on their land. These funds could also be used to secure industrial lands for timber management and carbon storage, as well as more murrelet habitat and on state lands and industrial lands. This is part of our work to protect state forests and the state-endangered marbled murrelet, so these public lands are managed on behalf of all people, with win-win solutions for all stakeholders.

Our Colville Wild Campaign works to permanently protect northeast Washington’s wildest roadless areas on the Colville National Forest, which has the smallest amount of Wilderness of all Pacific Northwest national forests. And since Conservation Northwest’s founding, we’ve been fighting for the protection and restoration of national forests, old-growth and roadless habitat through our Forest Field Program, as well as our region’s crown jewels, such as the Loomis Forest, Blanchard Mountain and the Methow Headwaters.

The Loomis State Forest in north-central Washington. The subalpine meadows shown in this photo are critical habitat for Canada lynx and other wildlife. Photo: DNR

Connecting habitat to help wildlife adapt to shifting climates

In 2019, the United Nations released a report warning that one million species and one third of wildlife species in the U.S. were at risk of extinction. Connecting protected habitats using wildlife corridors has been identified as a crucial component of wildlife conservation. A recent study found that planning land conservation without climate change in mind renders the current habitat of 14 percent of species as no longer suitable in the future.

The Connected Backbone, a stretch of key north-south and east-west habitat running from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley south to the Horse Heaven Hills near Yakima, and the focus of our Sagelands Heritage Program. Map: Sonia Hall, SAH Ecological for Sagelands Heritage Program

As habitat zones shift due to climate change, many species will need to adapt by moving to new regions. Maintaining and restoring habitat connections through fragmented landscapes, known as “habitat connectivity”, will be crucial for animals to move and survive. While national parks and reserves provide temporary refuge for wildlife, corridors to other public lands will need to be protected as well.

Roads and highways are huge barriers in wildlife corridors. By building wildlife crossings over and under roads, animals can safely get across the highway to find food, mates, and shelter, making these structures an effective connectivity and climate change adaptation tool—all while keeping drivers and motorists safe from collisions with wildlife.

At Conservation Northwest, our work connecting habitat and wildlife corridors includes The Cascades Conservation Partnership, which protected 60 square miles of forest around I-90 from Cle Elum to the Green River watershed in the early 2000s. This Partnership set the stage for our I-90 Wildlife Corridor Campaign, which provided safe passage for animals by installing wildlife crossings through a coordinated campaign with state, agency and conservation partners, further restoring the North and South Cascades habitat connectivity.

Since then, we’ve initiated other connectivity programs, including the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative to link grizzly bear habitat and populations between the North Cascades and southern British Columbia’s Coast Range, our new Cascades to Olympics program securing connectivity corridors and using science-based mapping for securing “stepping stones” for spotted owls and other species to re-gain connected populations between the Cascades and Olympics, the Sagelands Heritage Program connecting inland shrub-steppe habitat, including the Safe Passage 97 project to build wildlife crossings in north-central Washington’s Okanogan Valley, and various programs working to connect and restore the Cascades to Rockies landscape.

The Gold Creek Wildlife Undercrossing on I-90 from above. Photo: Matt Johnson

Restoring native species to increase resilience to climate change threats

The warmer, drier conditions for longer periods of time expected under climate change will bring more wildfire and unstable weather. Restoring forests degraded by historic logging and fire suppression to promote big, fire-resilient trees and return fire to fire-starved forests makes them more resilient to climate change. Reducing road density through decommissioning and other watershed restoration measures increases resilience to climate-related storm events, flooding and landslides, and helps protect communities and reduce water pollution. Ecological forest management and landscape-scale watershed restoration work to address historic mismanagement of our wildlands, and bring the function of these watersheds as an ecosystem back to full capacity. All of this improves habitat and helps set the stage for wildlife restoration and recovery.

A Canada lynx, one of the Pacific Northwest’s rarest creatures that is vulnerable to climate change. Photo: John Alves

Here in the Northwest, we have some of the wildest critters in the country, but those same critters are vulnerable to climate change. Canada lynx are a fire-dependent species adapted for snow. Wolverines and mountain caribou depend on deep snowpack for denning and foraging, respectively. Salmon need cool, free-flowing rivers to spawn. Pygmy rabbits and sage grouse rely on healthy, connected sagelands and access to water. Without restoring and connecting habitat and providing other conservation safeguards, unusually large wildfires, shrinking snowpack and warm rivers will intensify with climate change and further imperil these endangered species.

Recovering species to reflect historic biodiversity and fully intact ecosystems is another important part of making our region more resilient to climate change. In addition to having habitat corridors to move through and adapt to changing conditions, animals need to be connected to other healthy populations. The fewer animals there are and the more separation between populations, the higher the chances for inbreeding and the lower the chances for long-term survival.

Through our Forest Field Program, we’re working collaboratively to ecologically restore our forests and watersheds, including public lands north and south of I-90 that are vital to wildlife movement between Mount Rainier National Park and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness through our Central Cascades Watersheds Restoration program. And we’re making efforts to champion the return of key animal species including fisher, grizzly bears, mountain caribou, wolves, wolverines, Canada lynx, marbled murrelets, sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, and more.

A prescribed burn on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo: Michael Liu

Climate change and human communities

We can’t talk about climate change impacts without talking about its effects on the health of human communities. Smoke from more large wildfires will reduce the air quality of nearby communities, disproportionately impacting communities with higher rates of respiratory conditions. Less salmon means less food for tribes who have relied on salmon as a culturally-significant resource for millennia, as well as other fishing communities. Intensified heat waves, floods, water pollution, increased ocean temperatures and natural disasters will have devastating impacts if community preparedness measures are not put into place.

And we know these impacts will disproportionately harm marginalized communities. People of color are on the frontlines of climate change, and their voices are often left out of polic

A wild Skagit river Chinook salmon carefully released. These fish are vital for southern resident orcas, bald eagles, and local tribes and fishermen. Photo Chase Gunnell

y decisions that affect their communities. We’re committed to making room at the table for diverse stakeholders in our conservation work, amplifying the needs and voices as an ally in the fight for climate justice, and advocating for outcomes that are just and equitable for all—especially for those most directly impacted. Visit our Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion page for more information.

Fortunately, a lot of the climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies offer great opportunity for green jobs. Fixing up degraded infrastructure on our public lands, restoring our forests and wildlands, conserving imperiled species, increasing access to green spaces, and building wildlife crossings can boost our economy and put us in a better position to address climate change impacts.

We’re also working to promote climate-friendly policy, such as carbon tax legislation and solutions to state forest management that benefit timber-dependent communities, conservationists, recreationists and wildlife.

As daunting as future predictions around climate change might be, we know there are actions we can take to make prospects better for us all. Through our work to protect, connect and restore our treasured wildlands and wildlife, we’re keeping the Northwest wild for us and for future generations, even as our climate changes.

read more about CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS ON WILDLIFE from conservation biologist reed noss, or learn about our programs HERE.
North Cascades National Park, Mt. Shuksan and Picture Lake in the fall