Climate change vulnerability assessment of species of concern in West Virginia

  • Byers E
  • Norris S
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This project assessed and ranked the relative climate change vulnerability of 185 animal and plant species in West Virginia. Most species were selected based on their status as Species of Greatest Conservation Need within the West Virginia Wildlife Conservation Action Plan. Among the species identified in the state plan, priority was given to globally vulnerable or imperiled species identified by NatureServe (G1-G3), and selected species that are critically imperiled at the state level (S1). A small number of more common species were assessed. More than half of the taxa assessed were scored as vulnerable to climate change. Amphibians were the taxonomic group at highest risk, followed closely by fish, mollusks, and rare plants. Highly mobile taxonomic groups including birds and mammals appear to be somewhat less vulnerable, as are common and widespread habitat foundation plants. Obligate cave invertebrates are predicted to have strong resistance to climate change impacts. Species with high global Conservation Status Ranks (at risk throughout their range) are statistically only slightly more vulnerable to climate change than globally abundant species. State-level Conservation Status Ranks and climate change vulnerability are more closely correlated, but scores for individual species still vary widely. In other words, rare species are not always vulnerable to climate change, and common species are not necessarily resilient. Six of the twenty-three risk factors assessed were strongly correlated with vulnerability to climate change across all taxonomic groups in the state. They are (a) natural barriers to movement and dispersal, (b) anthropogenic barriers to movement and dispersal, (c) physiological thermal niche, (d) physiological hydrological niche, (e) genetic variation, and (f) modeled response. In terms of the relative vulnerability of different geographies in the state, downscaled climate models indicate that species in the northern part of the state may experience slightly greater warming than those at the southern margin. Species dependent on moist habitats or ephemeral streams and wetlands in the eastern and western portions of the state are likely to experience greater drought stress than those in the higher-elevation Allegheny Mountains, but all habitats are likely to face increased drought stress, especially during the summer and early fall. Species on the southern, or “trailing” edge of their global range are more likely to disappear from the state. High elevation species restricted to the cool, moist summits and plateaus of Allegheny Mountain region of the state are at increased risk because they have no possibility of migrating upward, and potential migration northward is blocked by significant low-elevation natural barriers to the north. Based on the results of the assessment and review of current literature, management recommendations were developed for consideration in the next revision of the West Virginia Wildlife Conservation Action Plan. Key recommendations are to increase habitat connectivity; manage for ecosystem function and habitat integrity; protect natural heritage resources; protect water quality and streamflow; aim for representation, resiliency, and redundancy; consider innovative and unconventional strategies; reduce existing non-climate change ecosystem stressors; monitor, model, and adaptively manage; forge new partnerships; and mitigate.

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  • Elizabeth Byers

  • Sam Norris

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