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Climate change causing Rapid Wildlife Shifts

February 7, 2013

Report: Climate Change Causing Rapid Wildlife Shifts
02/05/2013  Susan Sharon Reported By:    

A new report from the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine finds that climate change is causing species and habitats to shift faster than scientists anticipated. The report comes on the heels of President Obama's inaugural address targeting climate change as a priority. As Susan Sharon reports, the groups are hoping their findings will help spur action.

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Report: Climate Change Causing Rapid Wildlife Shi Listen

The effects of climate disruption on wildlife and marine species are being seen all over the Northeast and beyond. Some of the changes have been well-documented: for example, the massive die-off of lobsters in Long Island Sound in the late 90s. 

Scientists say the likely culprit is higher temperatures combined with a big wind event. Lobstermen as far north as Rhode Island have also had to contend with a shell disease that has taken a dramatic toll on their fishery. 

"About a third of the lobsters there are infected and show symptoms," says Dr. Rick Wahle, a research professor at the University of Maine who studies the marine environment. Speaking at a telephone news conference, he said when it comes to marine climate change impacts, lobsters are sort of like the canary in the coal mine. 

While southern New England has seen the dramatic increase in lobster mortality, the Gulf of Maine has had record lobster harvests for the past 10 years. For Maine lobstermen, that's a side benefit of the warmer temperatures that coincide with a depletion of other groundfish species that typically prey on lobsters. 

But Wahle says the picture isn't all rosy, with the northward movement of other lobster predators - "things like green crabs, black sea bass. We occasionally see some tropical fish moving in during the summer."

Wahle says how all this will play out in the future is the big question. What is now becoming clear is that climate change is having an effect on inland species too. 

In New Hampshire, warmer temperatures have meant that black bears are not hibernating through the winter. Wildlife biologist Eric Orff says they're hitting bird feeders in December, January and February, something that was unheard of 20 years ago. 

Last fall hunters in the Granite State harvested a record 808 bears. Orff says it's due, in part, to a lack of summer nuts and berries which makes the animals more vulnerable. 

And then there's the dramatic seven-year drop in New Hampshire's moose population, "from about 7,500 moose to about 4,500 moose, which is a 40 percent decline," Orff says. "And our moose biologist basically attributes it to these warm winters and the explosion in tick numbers."

Orff says when there's a warm winter and a lack of snow cover, tick survival goes way up. That's because when female ticks drop off the animals in early spring, their eggs can't survive as well if there's snow on the ground. As a result, New Hampshire has been forced to reduce the number of moose hunting permits issued by about 60 percent over the past six years. 

The report's author, climate scientist Dr. Amanda Staudt, says there's not much time to act since some of the changes to wildlife are happening two-to-three times faster than scientists anticipated just a few years ago. The report recommends cutting carbon pollution by 50 pecent by 2030, transitioning to cleaner sources of energy and promoting what it calls "climate-smart" approaches to conservation. 

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