Refuges At Risk

Global warming is the single greatest threat imperiling the National Wildlife Refuge system. As climate changes, it will cause changes to ecosystems and habitats and reduce their ability to adequately support wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife (an organization dedicated to the preservation of all wild animals and native plants in their natural communities) has determined there will be major changes to plant communities and for storm intensity, sea levels, and water supplies. These issues will affect the natural refuges in place today, limiting their future ability to support wildlife.

Currently, more than 160 National Wildlife Refuges in the United States exist along the 95,000 miles (152,887.7 km) of U.S. coastline. They are in serious danger of being affected by global warming because scientists expect sea levels to rise as polar ice and glaciers melt and oceans physically expand as they get warmer. It is expected that sea-level rise will range from four to 36 inches (10-91 cm). Negative effects to these refuges include: subsidence and erosion of the land; saltwater contamination of freshwater; inland shifts of beaches; loss of coastal wetlands and mangroves; declines in coral reef health; changes of forest habitat into marsh; and increases in coastal areas' susceptibility to frequent, aggressive storms.

The prairie region in the United States is another area of concern. This area is the most critical waterfowl-producing region in North America, with its "prairie potholes," featuring extensive grasslands and large wetlandlike depressions. The potholes are critical to avian migration.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges that as temperatures rise, soil moisture can decrease, especially during the summer. The agency predicts that warmer climates in the northern prairie wetlands region will increase the frequency and severity of droughts, which could reduce the potholes from 1.3 million to 800,000 by 2050. In addition, because waterfowl breeding habitat is so concentrated in the pothole region, the effects of global warming could potentially cut the number of breeding ducks in half and increase the likelihood of avian flu and other deaths.

The wildlife refuges in Alaska are also under close watch. According to Defenders of Wildlife, since 1950, the average temperature in the Arctic region has increased by 4-7°F (2.4-4.2°C). Precipitation has increased by 30 percent since 1968. Evidence of warming is everywhere—melting sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost, migrating wildlife, and insect infestations.

Research completed by the U.S. Global Change Research Program projects that Alaska will warm 1.5-5°F (0.9-3°C) by 2030 and 5-18°F

All over North America, wildlife that was once shot or trapped year-round is now protected for at least part of each year by state and/or federal laws. Historically, it was overhunting that led to the establishment of the first federal wildlife refuges in the united States. The refuge system began because all wildlife—including game birds such as ducks and other migratory waterfowl—were being slaughtered. President Theodore Roosevelt realized that waterfowl needed safe places along their migration routes. By 1904, 51 refuges had been set aside in the united States and its territories. Many were mainly waterfowl habitats, but some were established for the benefit of nongame birds such as pelicans and spoonbills.

Today there are more than 440 federal wildlife refuges totaling 92 million acres. Most of the acreage is in Alaska, but refuges are located all over the united States and its territories. Also, many national parks, forests, and monuments; thousands of state and county parks and reserves; and many privately owned preserves provide habitat for wildlife in the united States. Millions of acres have been set aside for the protection of wild animals and plants. Many environmental groups, ecologists, and private citizens would like to see more land set aside for these efforts. It often takes many years of public education and political lobbying in order to establish new reserves to protect wildlife. The effort to promote species diversity is well rewarded.

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