Vulnerability Assessment of the USFWS National Wildlife Refuge System for Strategic Adaptation Planning

Dawn R. Magness, John M. Morton, Falk Huettmann, F. Stuart Chapin, A. David McGuire
Posted on: 7/18/2022 - Updated on: 7/18/2023

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Rapid climate change, in conjunction with other anthropogenic drivers, has the potential to cause mass species extinction. To minimize this risk, conservation reserves need to be coordinated at multiple spatial scales because the climate envelopes of many species may shift rapidly across large geographic areas. In addition, novel species assemblages and ecological reorganization make future conditions uncertain.

We used a GIS analysis to assess the vulnerability of 501 reserve units in the National Wildlife Refuge System as a basis for a nationally coordinated response to climate change adaptation. We used measures of climate change exposure (historic rate of temperature change), sensitivity (biome edge and critical habitat for threatened and endangered species), and adaptive capacity (elevation range, latitude range, watershed road density; and watershed protection) to evaluate refuge vulnerability. The vulnerability of individual refuges varied spatially within and among biomes. We suggest that the spatial variability in vulnerability be used to define suites of management approaches that capitalize on local conditions to facilitate adaptation and spread risk across the reserve network.

We conceptually define four divergent management strategies to facilitate adaptation: refugia, ecosystem maintenance, “natural” adaptation, and facilitated transitions. Furthermore, we recognize that adaptation approaches can use historic (i.e., retrospective) and future (prospective) condition as temporal reference points to define management goals.


Magness, D.R.; Morton, J.M.; Huettmann, F.; Chapin, F.S., III; McGuire, A.D. 2011. A climate-change adaptation framework to reduce continental-scale vulnerability across conservation reserves. Ecosphere. 2(10): 1-23.

Affiliated Organizations

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the premier government agency dedicated to the conservation, protection, and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats. It is the only agency in the federal government whose primary responsibility is management of these important natural resources for the American public. The Service also helps ensure a healthy environment for people through its work benefiting wildlife, and by providing opportunities for Americans to enjoy the outdoors and our shared natural heritage.


Adaptation Phase
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