Experts warn species in peril from climate change

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Climate change threatens to kill off up to a third of the planet’s species by the end of the century if urgent action isn’t taken to restore fragile ecosystems, protect endangered animals and manage growth, scientists warned Wednesday as a wildlife summit opened.

“Much of the predictions are gloom and doom. The ray of hope, however, is that we have not lost our opportunity. We still have time if we act now,” said Jean Brennan, a senior scientist with Defenders of Wildlife and co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The three-day summit, sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, assembled several world-renowned climate change researchers with dozens of wildlife experts to trade ideas on how to save species on a warming planet.

Florida has the lowest elevation of any state, the only living coral barrier reef in North America, and the Everglades, a unique wetland perilously close to collapse with at least 67 threatened or endangered species. The state’s population is expected to nearly double to 32 million people by 2050, adding more pressure on shrinking wildlife habitats.

The commission called the summit to learn how best to protect Florida’s wildlife and natural resources. Warming oceans and rising sea levels threaten to inundate Florida’s developed coastline and barrier islands, kill its reef and decimate an economy based on tourism.

Experts noted that many plants and animals have temperature-specific habitats. A change of only a few degrees can kill them or send them seeking a better home.

“Species are moving to track what is the most ideal climate for them,” Brennan said, adding that many are “desperately trying” to find their way through a maze of dams, development and other manmade obstacles along their natural corridors.

Brennan and others said creating wildlife pathways so animals can move freely northward as temperatures warm could mean the difference between survival and extinction.

“We have to have the ability for species to move and when they get there, wherever there is, it needs to be an intact and healthy ecosystem,” Brennan said.

As the Earth’s temperature rises, entire habitats will change, consumed by weather extremes, fires, pest outbreaks and invasions of nonnative species, said Virginia Burkett, a chief scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Burkett, another co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, said extensive die-offs of pinion pine trees in the West are being attributed to climate change. She added some animal species are already disappearing.

Burkett cited the decline of the American pika, a small mountain-dwelling mammal also known as a rock-rabbit that is typically found in the western U.S. and Canada. The rodent maintains a body temperature topping 100 degrees, but with just a few degrees of climate change, “this animal will die,” Burkett said.

She said officials need to begin reducing the non-climate change related stressors, “stop draining the wetlands, damming rivers.”

Nature, she said, is highly adaptable and can be its own best protector against the effects of climate change if it can function, well, naturally.

Coastal growth also must be controlled and limited to allow for “wetlands to migrate inland naturally as sea level rise accelerates, and they can’t do that if there’s a road or a condominium there,” Burkett added.

Before Friday’s close, summit participants also will hold workshops on coastal ecosystems, land use planning, invasive species and wildlife adaptation.

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