Species protection on the move

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A map of the team’s research region. Photo credit: Gengping Zhu of the University of Tennessee Knoxville

As temperatures and sea levels rise as a result of climate change, flora and fauna migrate to new and unknown lands to survive. Some species of animals need to move further north to stay cool, while trees and plants need to increase the breadth of their seed distribution to ensure success for generations to come.

And just as they adapt to change, so too must our ideas of how we can successfully engage in nature conservation.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems program, an interdisciplinary research team from Virginia Tech; the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and the University of Southern California are helping conservation agencies and other stakeholders across state and local boundaries rethink approaches to protecting biodiversity for this new era of climate change.

“Conservation efforts have traditionally been built around this notion that species exist in certain places and not in others,” said Todd Schenk, associate professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning Program of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. “It has become clear that this is no longer true, if it ever was. We are reaching the point where climate change and other drivers of global change are rapidly changing ecosystems.”

In view of the increasing effects of climate change on ecosystems, managers, researchers, environmental planners and other stakeholders are asking themselves: How do we deal with the migration of entire ecosystems when our conservation efforts are primarily focused on specific locations and through political boundaries?

With this project, the research team zooms into one of the most biologically diverse regions of the temperate world: the central and southern Appalachians. The region will serve as a test site for developing a more dynamic vision of conservation.

Within the lower 48, the Appalachian ecosystems are characterized by their incredible biodiversity. With an area of ​​737,000 square miles and home to tens of thousands of species, these mountain ecosystems have played and will continue to play a vital role in facilitating the movement of species as a result of climate change.

The Appalachians cross 13 states. Taking into account all of the federal agencies, government agencies, tribes, and nonprofits that have shared responsibility to protect them, the Appalachian Mountain Range is a prime example of the management challenges that will arise when species are exposed to new, growing threats.

Schenk said that there is an issue worth mentioning: our state borders. A long time ago, state borders were largely drawn without considering ecological peculiarities.

“Initially, our borders are seldom drawn on the basis of ecosystems such as river basins or water basins,” said Schenk. “If anything, we did the opposite. Many states have rivers that serve as borders. Of course, we didn’t draw political borders that take into account the ecology of regions. We drew them for other reasons.”

For those responsible for environmental policy, planning and management, these artificial boundaries are all the more problematic. Environmental change will inevitably cross these boundaries, which requires significant coordination across these boundaries.

“Much of what we do as a society to protect species is ultimately tied to fixed geography,” said Paul Armsworth, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and lead researcher on the project. “We protect special places in the landscape in nature reserves or commission government agencies to manage the protection of species within their borders. But we need much more flexible and dynamic approaches to continue protecting species in the face of accelerating climate change. “

Researchers believe that this kind of collective thinking will require cultural and institutional changes within natural resource management agencies and conservation NGOs, and it will take time to enable such changes.

Using artificial intelligence, the team will be able to quantify these changes over time and alert state and federal agencies to plan accordingly.

“If we only respond to changes once they happen, the conservation community will always be in crisis mode, but we can stay one step ahead of the game,” said Bistra Dilkina, co-PI of the computer science team at the University of Southern California. “If we use modern computer approaches, we can predict how species will react to climate change and where and when ecological changes will occur in the landscape. That way, we can examine what types of new governance collaborations are needed. “Ready when those changes happen.”

To further investigate these issues, the team plans to directly involve government officials and others responsible for integrating climate change into state wildlife action plans (SWAPs). With each state sticking to its own plan, coordinating to tackle dire issues like climate change can be difficult. Coordination is essential.

“There is no close integration across these national borders,” said Schenk. “People who make these plans have a responsibility only to their state and their state. You won’t suddenly start making plans for the other states. So a key question is how do we coordinate while realizing these political boundaries? don’t go away? ‘”

The team is also looking for knowledge from those who took care of the country long before the Europeans arrived. Various indigenous tribes inhabit the central and southern Appalachians and the team will learn from them and help them improve their management approaches in the face of a changing climate.

“They are critical partners in this project in view of their long-term relationships and their responsibility for the country,” said Schenk.

The team is confident that by combining different types of research expertise and experts from different organizations, this new project can really make a difference for future conservation in the Appalachian region and beyond.

“Environmental problems like climate change are at the core of human problems,” said William A. Hopkins, professor of wildlife at the College of Natural Resources and Environment and associate director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “We need to address the human dimension of these complex problems if we have any hope of ultimately stopping or reversing their impact on the environment and society. The collaboration between ecologists, social scientists and computer scientists in this NSF-funded project is an example of the kind of innovative approaches needed to solve these challenges. “

The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is taking bold steps to encourage and support similar collaborations and strategic partnerships with colleges and other institutes at Virginia Tech.

“We recently brought together faculties of diverse expertise from five colleges in Steger Hall to address issues related to rapid environmental change. In coordination with the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, we were able to bring in Todd Schenk, ”added Hopkins.

Schenk emphasized that the NSF Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems program is a rare and exciting opportunity for researchers. Not only will researchers from all disciplines work together, but also within and outside of science.

“This program will integrate social and ecological areas that are so important for issues such as effective nature conservation,” said Schenk. “It’s really nice to see everyone – from federal agencies to the Fralin Life Sciences Institute – come together to see so much emphasis on real, sustainable, and deeper collaboration that extends beyond the academic world.”


Reactive and inconsistent practices empower invasive plants in the United States


Courtesy of Virginia Tech


Quote: Species conservation in motion (2021, June 29), accessed on June 29, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-06-species.html

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