Evenings with Audubon: A risky climate for cranes, wetlands, and our world
Cranes are among the most endangered bird families, and flagships for understanding the risks of climate change to biodiversity worldwide—especially where wetland loss and watershed degradation already impact biodiversity. In Texas, rising sea levels and reduced freshwater inflows threaten the coastal marshes used by Endangered Whooping Cranes. Melting polar regions inundate the arctic marshes where Critically Endangered Siberian Cranes breed. Retreating glaciers in Asia no longer feed the high-altitude wetlands that support Blacknecked Cranes. Reduced runoff and higher temperatures on Southern Africa floodplains increase water stress, fire, and invasive species that threaten Wattled Cranes, elephants, and other renowned wildlife. Even our abundant Sandhill Cranes are vulnerable to more frequent and prolonged droughts, especially in the western US.
To manage and secure wetlands facing climate change, we draw lessons from decades of crane conservation—that the needs of cranes, many other species, and people are linked strongly to healthy wetlands and watersheds. In Africa, we challenge developers to incorporate climate change into dam operation and release environmental flows to maintain floodplain health. In China, we negotiate with municipalities to maintain wetlands that are critical staging sites for migratory cranes and waterbirds. In Texas, we model how sea-level rise and freshwater inflows affect future wetland availability for Whooping Cranes, using this knowledge to guide land purchase and easements sufficient for the population to recover fully. Here at home, we seek wetland protections that provide for a wide range of water conditions for cranes and other wildlife to weather years of extreme drought and flood.