WHITEFISH – In a warming world, wildlife biologists must conduct rigorous research while managing for a suite of resilient and adaptive species if wildlife populations are to keep pace with climate change, a University of Montana professor told attendees at the Wildlife Society’s annual conference.
L. Scott Mills, a professor of wildlife biology at UM, told colleagues not to despair in the face of climate change during a plenary session Wednesday titled “Wildlife and Change: The Influence of Climate, Politics and Social Dynamics on Wildlife Conservation and Management.” Instead, he said, they should apply their research and science to identify wildlife stressors and solutions.
“We actually do know a lot,” Mills said. “We are in a good position to help solve this issue. After all, this is what we do.”
Mills’ research projects include a study at Olympic National Park, where he documented a steep decline in an endemic marmot species due to the arrival of invasive coyotes, and a snowshoe hare research project that examines the camouflage conundrum that bunnies face due to shorter winters and a reduction in duration of winter snowpack – one of the strongest signals of climate change.
Through the rabbit research, Mills is trying to learn whether snowshoe hares will be able to adapt to climate change as their coat color becomes increasingly mismatched with their habitat. He believes hares may have the capacity to respond to the potential mismatch through plasticity and natural selection.
“Our work has uncovered, and will continue to uncover, solutions,” he said, noting as an example that research led to restrictions on the insecticide DDT. “Do not despair.”
Mike Lewis, a social scientist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who was also on the panel, said human dynamics heavily influence wildlife issues, particularly as certain issues – such as wolves and climate change – become more heavily debated.
“Both sides are becoming further entrenched in their attitudes and beliefs,” he said. “They are seeking out information that only supports their point of view, and in this age of technology and enhanced communication it is easier for folks to find information that supports their point of view, or even create their own information using surveys.”
In Montana, Lewis said there is a growing shift in values regarding wildlife, from the traditional “utilitarian” value set toward a more contemporary set of environmental values called “mutualism.” He expects the value shift to continue as the state receives an influx of nonresidents who bring with them a different value set.
He said there could be a decline in the number of hunters and a rise in social conflicts over wildlife-related issues, changes that would force the wildlife profession to adapt and wildlife management agencies to create nontraditional funding sources.
As wildlife division chief for FWP, Ken McDonald works alongside Montana lawmakers to scrutinize wildlife bills on the agency’s behalf.
Midway through the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers have introduced 78 fish and wildlife bills, compared with 49 education bills and 25 bills regarding livestock and agriculture – the state’s largest industry.
“So you can see that fish and wildlife are hot topics,” he said.
McDonald talked about how politics influence wildlife management, and said the major themes of this session have been bison and wolves.
He said the most effective way to minimize political influence in wildlife management is to have working groups and advisory committees scrutinize bills and their potential consequences, and to foster strong constituent support.
Last week, 400 members of a coalition of state sporting groups wearing hunter orange vests crowded the Capitol rotunda to rally for a bill that revises trespass laws and would allow corner crossings on checkerboard parcels of public land.
“It’s important to have groups that are engaged with the process,” he said.
McDonald said the political makeup of the FWP Commission is poised to change as three of the five seats are open.
“By the end of this legislative session, we could have a whole new fish and game commission, which is a big deal,” he said. “That’s a classic example of how politics can affect wildlife management.”