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Finding a Way Forward in a Changing World

Incorporate these recommendations on caring for your property to help ensure your local ecosystem is resilient and able to adapt to climatic changes.

| October 2019

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

The Challenge of a Changing World

Habitat management generally assumes that, absent major disturbances, the habitat within an area will persist more or less unchanged once the area is protected or managed or the habitat restored. Although successional processes may move the habitat away from (or toward) a desired state, these changes are generally thought to be gradual and at least to some degree predictable.

Spatial variation may create heterogeneity in successional states at multiple scales, but this is often viewed as variation about a long- term equilibrium, as envisioned in shifting- mosaic steady- state concepts of succession (Borman and Likens 1979; Turner et al. 1993). Of course, ecologists and managers recognize that environments vary over time in ways unrelated to ecological succession; neither still believes in a strict equilibrium view of nature. The expectation that such variation occurs around a stable, long- term mean, however, is encapsulated in the concepts of stationarity (in aquatic environments) or historical range of variation (in terrestrial systems). Both concepts have been discredited (Milly et al. 2008; Wiens et al. 2012); even the average conditions are not stable and unvarying over any time scale relevant to conservation or management.

Consequently, many of the factors determining “habitat” vary over multiple scales in time and space, burdening habitat management with cascading uncertainties. Unpredictable extreme events such as hurricanes and floods (Dale et al. 1998; CCSP 2008) only add to the uncertainty.

This is the current situation. While the future is by definition uncertain, the changes now underway are sure to create additional uncertainty in habitat-based management and conservation by altering not only the environmental context of habitats but the very nature of the habitats that people wish to manage, whatever the targets. Changes in global climate are projected to have profound effects on regional and local precipitation, temperature regimes, and the frequency and magnitude of extreme events. Changes in land use, driven by the combination of climate change, local and global economic forces, and changing societal demands for resources and commodities, will alter landscapes over multiple scales.

In some cases, ecological responses to these changes may be gradual, as species expand, contract, or shift distributions. Species-distribution modeling for a variety of taxa (e.g., Iverson et al. 2008; Lawler et al. 2009; Stralberg et al. 2009) has shown how extensive these distributional changes may be. The effects will differ among species, disrupting the composition of local communities and the trophic webs of ecosystems. In other cases, the changes may be sudden, as systems are pushed beyond thresholds of resilience or tolerance to drought, temperature, disturbance, or other factors.

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