FARGO – North Dakota has witnessed the fastest rise in temperatures among the lower 48 states. Now, for the first time, state game officials will include climate change in their wildlife management plans.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department's draft state wildlife action plan, which it will submit for federal approval, contains a section to begin identifying species vulnerable to climate change and outlining possible steps to minimize impacts.
"The story for the vast majority of the species is what they depend on, habitat," said Steve Dyke, conservation supervisor for North Dakota Game and Fish. "It's the habitat that's kind of slipping away here."
Some species-whether plants, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians or mammals-could face diminishing or shifting habitat, forcing them to adapt or die off.
The report noted "strong evidence" that North Dakota is becoming warmer and somewhat wetter, and is expected to be whipsawed by weather extremes, including more frequent droughts and floods.
For instance, some scientists expect the Prairie Pothole region-a sprawling area of wetlands that provide crucial habitat for waterfowl-to become drier in the west but wetter in the east as precipitation shifts.
Climate fluctuations influence waterfowl populations. Weather patterns also have been shown to affect mule deer populations, as winters alternate between mild and severe in response to the shifting El Nino, La Nina pattern in the Pacific Ocean.
A team of biologists at the University of North Dakota wrote the climate change section of the draft wildlife plan. Their report compiles climate studies and documented impacts on vulnerable species in susceptible habitats similar to those in the state.
"We are only starting this process," said Kathryn Yurkonis, a grassland ecologist at UND and lead author of the climate draft report.
Mammals are not included in the climate change section, which focuses on previously identified species of conservation concern. They include aquatic and bird species, including the meadowlark, North Dakota's state bird.
"That seems to have resonated," Dyke said. "I think that speaks to where we're trending-our state bird seems to be an issue."
Besides climate change, other significant threats to wildlife habitat include fragmentation from industrial development-including the oil boom in western North Dakota-and loss of conservation acres plowed under to grow crops.
Recent climate change in North Dakota has been implicated in earlier onset of spring, changes in the time of first flowering, and earlier arrival of the yellow-rumped warbler in Fargo, the report said.
The deer tick, which carries Lyme disease, is also expanding westward into North Dakota, beyond the range of earlier climate predictions.
Meanwhile, a field station that is part of a network of federal climate study laboratories continues gearing up to collect data at sites near Jamestown.
A location near Woodworth is the Northern Great Plains site for NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, and is administered by the National Science Foundation.
Scientists will be collecting data about climate and species, including invasive species, as well as the spread of diseases associated with climate, such as Lyme disease, the West Nile virus and hantavirus, said Andrea Anteau, NEON's field operations manager in North Dakota.
Official data collection will begin in 2017 and is slated to continue for 30 years. One reason Woodworth and nearby sites were chosen is that scientists already have been studying the area for decades, so long-term comparisons will be possible, Anteau said.
"You really do need a long-term tracking of what's going on," she said. Weather is inherently variable, she added, and it takes analysis over time to determine changes associated with changing climate.
"North Dakota's critters are really well-adapted to whatever Mother Nature throws at them," Anteau said. "If you can survive 100 degrees above and 40 degrees below, you're well-equipped."
Still, some species are vulnerable and unable to adapt or move to find favorable habitat, she said.
The information that NEON collects in North Dakota will be helpful in planning to protect vulnerable species, Yurkonis said.
Game and Fish officials' priorities traditionally have been game animals, including deer and antelope, and pheasants, ducks and sport fish. Now, Dyke said, to deal with climate change they might have to develop expertise in other fields such as entomology, the study of insects.
"We're an agency that's generally looked at bigger critters," Dyke said.
The state's wildlife conservation plan will be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by July 1, with hopes it will be approved by October, he said.