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Sunday, November 6, 2022

Climate Change Threatens Bird Populations in the National Wildlife Refuge System

Warming temperatures and increased climate threats could affect half of the birds throughout all of the system’s refuges.    

By National Audubon Society

In a survey of all 525 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, scientists with the National Audubon Society have found half of the birds throughout the system will see changes in the environmental suitability of their habitats if global temperatures are allowed to rise unchecked. The result could be a dramatic change in up to 25 percent of the species present in the system as some birds either leave for other regions or are pushed out. 

“Our national refuges should be exactly that – places of safety and conservation for our beloved wildlife. Instead, warming temperatures are causing many birds to be pushed out of the places they call home regardless of whether or not there is a more suitable habitat nearby,” said Brooke Bateman, director of climate science at the National Audubon Society. “Birds are telling us that the places that they need to survive are changing quickly, and not all of them will be able to adapt.”

The findings show that climate change is accelerating habitat changes at rates that may not be sustainable, so birds that move out of one region may not be able to find the resources they need elsewhere, and the system may not be able to accommodate any new species. The change is particularly notable in northern latitudes and high altitudes, where birds seeking cooler temperatures may run out of places to go.

The result will be a refuge system that looks very different than it currently does, as emblematic species of some regions shift. Some species, like the Tundra Swan, Rufous Hummingbird, Yellow-billed Magpie, and Blackburnian Warbler may fully disappear from the system.

“While it’s distressing enough to think that you may no longer see some of the same species you were used to seeing in certain regions, the larger issue is that some species will be gone from this vast system altogether,” said Bateman. “And because the wildlife refuge system covers a vast array of ecosystems across the country, the consequences for the birds in the refuges tell us a lot about what could be in store for humans if we fail to take action.”

The National Wildlife Refuge System spans 95 million acres on land and also covers 760 million submerged lands and waters. National refuges are found in all 50 states. The findings of the study have already affected how refuge biologists approach their work, prompting them to adopt a method known as Resist-Affect-Direct, or RAD.

“For years, the standard for refuge biologists has been to assume that the conditions in their region would stay the same, and they specialized their work to those climates. But now they have shifted to the adaptive Resist-Affect-Direct approach, anticipating how to weather some changes that may be inevitable, while trying to prevent the worst effects of climate change,” said Bateman. 

Audubon has made science briefs for all 525 refuges available that detail what specific climate threats are affecting each refuge, what species will be climate-vulnerable, and how precipitation and temperature may change in the next 30 years absent any preventive action. Audubon is working with decision-makers and land managers to ensure the National Wildlife Refuge System has adequate funding, and to expand the System to meet the needs of birds and people as they adapt to a changing climate. The FWS is also using the data to support expansion and acquisition for the refuge system.

“As the Refuge System adapts to its new climate reality, every level of the agency will need more resources and funding to achieve its mission,” said Lander Karath, public lands policy manager at the National Audubon Society. “Congress must significantly increase the Refuge System's budget to meet current needs and to support future adaptations and expansions for birds and other species.”

2019 Audubon report found that two-thirds of bird species in all of North America may be vulnerable to extinction if global temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The survey can be found here: