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Project Summary

To better understand and address climate change in its 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan update, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VA DGIF) applied downscaled climate change modeling in a vulnerability assessment for 20 different species. Vulnerability assessment information and regional climate projections were integrated into the recently published plan, which takes a habitat-conservation based approach to wildlife management, provides critical management and climate information at relevant local scales, and outlines monitoring strategies for evaluating conservation action effectiveness. Climate models have also been used to identify priority refugia across all conservation lands in Virginia, including those under federal, state, local, and NGO management. In addition, the VA DGIF is actively working to reduce non-climate stressors in aquatic and riparian habitats to bolster habitat resilience in the face of climate change.

Project Background

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VA DGIF) manages over 30,000 aquatic and terrestrial species, including threatened and endangered (T/E), game and non-game, and migratory species. Game and T/E species have their own revenue streams and constitute a minority of species under VA DGIF management. In 2000, Congress established the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program to provide funding for managing species other than game and T/E species. To receive State and Tribal Wildlife Grant funds, each state is required to complete a State Wildlife Action Plan.

Virginia completed its original action plan in 2005, identifying 925 species of greatest conservation need, 75-80% of which are either aquatic or riparian species. The 2005 plan also identified rivers as crucial habitat and a conservation priority given a warmer future with variable precipitation. Although the 2005 plan mentioned certain climate change impacts such as sea level rise and warming temperatures, it generally gave no definitive guidelines and principles for managing wildlife and fisheries under a changing climate. Given potential climate change impacts on Virginia’s wildlife and fish species, including range shifts and habitat contraction and degradation, the VA DGIF wanted to more explicitly plan for and incorporate climate change into its State Wildlife Action Plan update in 2015. Other goals of the plan update process included taking a habitat approach to conservation management and threat evaluation, enhancing relevance and management opportunities at the local scale, prioritizing species and conservation actions, representing multiple stakeholders and partners, and developing a system for measuring conservation action effectiveness.

Funding for the 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan update was received from the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant program. As a part of the update, species-specific climate change modeling totaling roughly $193,000 was funded by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with additional funding and personnel support from the National Wildlife Federation.

Project Implementation

After the 2005 State Wildlife Action Plan was published, the VA DGIF engaged in several efforts to improve understanding of species and habitat vulnerability to climate change. From 2007-2008, in collaboration with the National Wildlife Federation and the Virginia Conservation Network, the VA DGIF held two stakeholder workshops to identify general climate change adaptation options for the state. The final report, published in 2009 as Virginia’s Strategy for Safeguarding Species of Greatest Conservation Need from the Effects of Climate Change, discusses research needs and goals for climate-informed wildlife management, and discusses potential adaptation options identified by workshop participants. Many specific adaptation options are presented under three general adaptation strategies: 1) conserve species and habitats as climate changes, 2) address data and modeling needs related to climate change, and 3) expand outreach and education efforts. Under the second strategy, one key action was to “produce climate modeling and associated wildlife threats and vulnerability assessment for Virginia.”

To address the need for more explicit vulnerability information for wildlife and fish species, the VA DGIF collaborated with the National Wildlife Federation, Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute, and Kutztown University to develop dynamically downscaled climate models and conduct a species vulnerability assessment. Models for the Mid-Atlantic Region (including West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware) were downscaled to a 10 square km grid scale resolution, and provided data on 20 different climate variables for current, mid- and late-century time frames (1990-1999, 2055-2060 and 2090-2095), based on two separate IPCC climate scenarios representing lower and higher emissions (B1 and A1F1). In excess of the 20 variables that could be directly modeled, an additional 10-12 climate-related variables (e.g., soil moisture) could be generated based on model data.

This downscaled information was applied in a vulnerability assessment of 20 species. Species included those of greatest conservation need or species identified in the 2005 State Wildlife Action Plan, and were selected in part from guidance from state and federal biologists and in part to represent a broad array of habitat types, species groups, and climate sensitivity. An independent model was run for each species, incorporating data related to current distribution, known climatic tolerances, and estimated future distributions predicted under climate change. A series of species distribution maps under current and future conditions were generated for each species, and published in the 2013 report Virginia’s Climate Modeling and Vulnerability Assessment: How Climate Data Can Inform Management and Conservation.

Modeling results revealed interesting projections for riparian and aquatic species. For example, riparian tree species eastern hemlock and yellow birch will likely exhibit different responses to climate change, with eastern hemlock habitat suitability declining by mid-century while yellow birch remains largely unaffected. Shifts in the distribution of these species could impact stream shading and water temperature in high-elevation cold-water streams, with ramifications for aquatic biota. Mirroring these changes, modeling results for cold-water fish species (represented by brook trout) indicate that cold-water fish will likely suffer significant habitat reductions due to decreasing snow cover and soil moisture, increasing temperature, and more frequent high-volume precipitation events. By comparison, warm-water fish species (represented by the Roanoke log perch) and freshwater mussels (represented by the James River Spiny Mussel) were projected to experience increasing habitat availability as a result of climate change, although water quality issues related to increased runoff, erosion, and water temperature could be potential issues of concern.

Staff had less confidence in model results generated for aquatic species due to the high number of factors that influence aquatic systems, and this modeling effort did not include factors related to land use or population growth. Overall, findings from the vulnerability assessment highlighted the importance of maintaining current healthy species populations and healthy habitats to buffer future climate impacts and create management opportunities in the long term.

Project Outcomes and Conclusions

Climate change information and climate-informed management actions based on the modeling results were successfully integrated into Virginia’s recently published 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan. This plan takes a habitat-based approach to analyzing threats and developing conservation actions, which ensures that multiple species will benefit from any one conservation activity. The plan also breaks down management actions according to 21 local regions, which roughly mirror Planning District Commissions across the state. Organizing the plan in this manner should facilitate action by both the state and other key stakeholders, leveraging conservation opportunities and maximizing collaborative conservation.

Climate change information is presented both at the state and local level in the updated plan. An analysis of state-wide trends is presented at the beginning of the report, and each local summary includes a synthesis of relevant climate threats and potential management responses for priority habitats within that area. Potential effectiveness metrics are also presented for each of the 21 regions to facilitate conservation project monitoring. The VA DGIF hopes that in the near future, both agency and non-agency conservation projects can be uploaded to the Wildlife TRACS (Tracking and Reporting Actions for the Conservation of Species) system to facilitate adaptive management in the face of changing conditions.

The VA DGIF is now working on generating, interpreting, and compiling additional climate change data to supplement information generated in the species vulnerability assessment. It hopes to use this information to begin to actively manage for future climate shifts. For example, knowing that the state may see a shift in dominant riparian species, the department wants to develop critical management questions in regards to maintaining riparian vegetation for stream temperature regulation. By considering questions like what species can take the place of currently dominant riparian shade trees to maintain stream shading, when replacement plantings should begin, and what partnerships and resources are needed, the VA DGIF hopes to shape future management action. In the long term, the VA DGIF hopes to make climate change adaptation an integral part of its 2025 Wildlife Action Plan update. The VA DGIF has also applied its climate models in a broader landscape conservation context via the Conservation Lands and Climate Assessment Project.

The VA DGIF owns and manages more land than any other state agency in Virginia, and as an entity making significant financial investments via land purchases, wanted to better understand how ecological land value may change in the future. Using $127,000 provided by the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant program, the State of Virginia and an in-kind match from the Virginia Tech Climate Modeling Institute, the VA DGIF identified all parks, refuges, easements, wildlife management areas, and other conservation areas under state, federal, and NGO partner ownership, representing Virginia’s “conservation lands portfolio.” Current and future climate conditions were modeled across this portfolio to identify how conditions may change across the state, which habitats and species may be most resilient, and where potential habitat refugia may exist. This landscape-scale information will be very important for climate-informed management of different wildlife and aquatic species, particularly those that may benefit from assisted migration and/or those that require in-place conservation. More information on the specific modeling done in this effort is available in the 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan, and interested parties can also download GIS shapefiles of conservation lands in Virginia via the Conservation Lands Database website.

Concurrent to climate modeling and adaptation efforts, the VA DGIF is also working with landowners to mitigate non-climate impacts on state watersheds in order to enhance overall habitat resilience. Through State and Tribal Wildlife Grants and other programs and partnerships, the VA DGIF works with public and private landowners to collaboratively finance waterway rehabilitation on private land. This program primarily focuses on reducing nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and contaminant delivery to streams, and activities are concentrated in several high-priority watersheds that are experiencing significant human impacts and that also contain many rare and imperiled species (e.g., Tennessee River, the Upper James River, and the Roanoke River). Sample activities include installing cattle fencing, creating riparian buffers, restoring stream banks, and restoring streams through creating meanders. Restoration projects have cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, and are funded by a combination of outside sources, the state level Fish and Wildlife Service, sport fish restoration money, State and Tribal Wildlife Grant funds, and funds from the State of Virginia. An example project includes restoration of a cut bank to reduce sediment delivery on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in partnership with the Town of Elkton. By redesigning the stream channel and shoreline, and establishing a forested riparian buffer, the partnership hopes to improve water quality to benefit scores of Virginia’s species of greatest conservation need, the Town, and downstream landowners, as well as boaters, anglers, wildlife watchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. The VA DGIF hopes that this type of collaborative effort will build positive relationships between private landowners and the state, laying the groundwork for similar collaborative efforts in the future.

Project Keywords

Recommended Citation

Reynier, W. (2017). A Climate-Informed Update of Virginia’s State Wildlife Action Plan [Case study on a project by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: updated December 2017)