Now that we've finally dug out from a cold, snowy winter in the Granite State, it's hard to get one's mind around the notion that the Earth is warming - but it is. This is the topic being discussed in wildlife and climate forums across the Granite State.
Attendees learn from biologists that impacts from climate change are already being reflected in New Hampshire's fish and wildlife populations.
New Hampshire's average temperatures are climbing in step with the global trend, largely due to carbon dioxide that traps energy in the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect. In addition, we have seen more droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and sea level rise. Snow and rainfall patterns are shifting. Without a doubt, these changes will and do impact our native species and the habitats they depend upon.
A look at forests in our 84-percent forested state reveals that the forest products industry is a driving economic force here. As the climate changes, hardwoods may migrate north. Extreme weather events such as summer drought and intense cold in winter could cause ash, yellow birch, and sugar maple to decline, reports the Department of Environmental Services, wreaking a serious blow to the state's $3 million sugar maple industry.
Changes in our forests directly relate to how birds live and interact with their environment. Some studies say that our state bird, the purple finch, could disappear from much of its Northeast range because of habitat changes. Purple finch populations are already falling 1.7 percent a year and have declined by half in less than 50 years.
Bicknell's thrush, a rare North American songbird, breeds in spruce-fir forests near the highest elevations of mountains in northern New England. They have already disappeared from several peaks of the White Mountains where they were once common. As warming causes conifer forests to shrink, deciduous trees will become more prevalent, and the habitat for Bicknell's thrush could disappear from the state.
For that iconic New Hampshire animal the moose, climate change is delivering a triple threat: heat stress from rising temperatures, changing habitat conditions and increasing parasitism by winter tick. Moose are especially sensitive to temperature. When winter temperatures rise above freezing, they become heat-stressed. In summer, they are heat-stressed when temperatures rise above 60 to 70 degrees. Heat stress impairs their overall health, leading to lower weights, declining pregnancy rates and increased vulnerability to predators, disease and parasites.
Warmer temperatures allow larger numbers of winter ticks to survive, sometimes infesting individuals so severely that they suffer from anemia and even death. Kristine Rines, with the state Fish and Game Department, told the Washington Post on March 3, "We've had a higher tick load on moose this fall than we've ever seen, except for one year previously." She's already seen calves dying.
Long term, we need to start making serious attempts to curb carbon, and the Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public support for that right now. On the ground, implementing the New Hampshire Wildlife and Ecosystems Climate Adaptation Plan is the best way to start addressing the negative impacts on wildlife species. Under the leadership of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, more than 100 New Hampshire constituents were involved in writing this plan, which aims to help wildlife adapt to climate changes, including the increased temperatures, intense storms and changing snowpack. The plan outlines the largest vulnerabilities our state is facing and recommends the best way to address them.
As an example, New Hampshire's habitats are vulnerable to changes due to increased flooding, as we have a higher number of intense storms. Protecting intact floodplains that naturally slow and absorb floodwaters will protect our communities while ensuring long-term protection for important habitats. This is a common sense conservation strategy that will also provide a pathway for animals to move in response to climate changes.
New Hampshire citizens have shown dedication to reversing the negative impacts of climate change by supporting action at the national level. Citizens are also being educated about the changes that are inevitably coming our way, and the adaptation plan will help us deal with these challenges. We encourage you to work with your town's conservation commission to find ways the plan can help with future conservation planning and to make your voice heard on this conservation issue.
Pam Hunt is senior biologist at New Hampshire Audubon. Loren Valliere is a biologist with the National Wildlife Federation.