Date of Award:

12-2018

Document Type:

Thesis

Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)

Department:

Ecology

Advisor/Chair:

Edward Hammill

Abstract

The unique species, ecosystems and landscapes of the Western United States are experiencing unprecedented pressures from climate change, creating new challenges for conservation. As temperatures rise and patterns of precipitation shift, plant and wildlife species have been shifting their ranges to new areas in search of more suitable climates, building groupings of species that are historically unfamiliar. These climate -driven migrations place an additional burden on species that are already threatened from habitat loss and other human-related activities. The impacts of climate change are of particular concern in landscapes that have long been conserved and managed based on the ecological features that define them, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. With many of these existing protected areas experiencing ecological shifts due to climate change, there is a growing need to identify the places within wider regions that will help species cope with impacts of changing climatic conditions. In some cases, those places are those where the pressures of climate change are least pronounced, what are referred to as “climate refugia.” At other times, helping plants and wildlife cope involves aiding their movement across the landscape in response to climate shifts, by preserving the connectivity between critical habitats and other highly important areas. While many efforts have been made to assess the potential of different areas as climate refugia and corridors, these practices have usually been carried out looking at individual species or ecosystems at a relatively local scale. Unfortunately, many of the decisions to conserve new parts of the landscape occur across much broader regions that span a multitude of species and ecosystems, ranging from individual states to entire continents. As a consequence, assessing climate refugia and corridors on a case-by-case basis for every ecological feature is neither feasible nor an efficient use of the limited resources available for conservation. Additionally, when deciding which areas are best suited for protecting native species and ecosystems from the impacts of climate change, one cannot ignore the existence of the other prevalent threats to conservation, such as habitat loss or invasive species. In this thesis, I have explored methods for widely incorporating climate change into the complex process of identifying high priority areas for conservation across broad regions. As a case study for this work, I chose the Southern Rockies Landscape Conservation Cooperative, a collaborative public and private effort for conserving and managing the ecological characteristics of a distinct region spanning seven states in the US Intermountain West. After broadly measuring climate change impact and connectivity in a manner that was not tied to any particular species, I simulated climate refugia and corridors that simultaneously represented the ranges of 31 separate wildlife species. Though further research is needed to better understand the full suite of threats to species persistence, the means already exist for conservation decision makers to account for climate change in their actions. I believe that my work supports that decision making process, providing a framework for identifying areas that are most critical for aiding diverse species and ecosystems in their responses to the pressures of climate change.

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